Tom Ullyett is the first Yukoner to receive the Louis St-Laurent Award of Excellence from the Canadian Bar Association for his work as a community builder and mentor in the territory.
The award is the highest honour bestowed by the association and recognizes a lifetime of outstanding service and professional achievement. Ullyett was announced as the recipient on Feb. 17.
Ullyett has worked in the Yukon since he arrived in 1986 as an articling student on a one-year contract. He spent 33 years working for the Yukon government, initially as a public sector lawyer and eventually a deputy minister. He now works in human resources for the City of Whitehorse.
He has also served as the co-chair of the bar association’s Yukon branch and acted as a mentor to young lawyers in the territory.
“I really saw the need of what others had done ahead of me, to support and encourage young lawyers, both with their work and to get involved with their community,” Ullyett said.
“I’ve always encouraged others to become involved, and tried to mentor, mostly informally.”
In an interview with the News on Feb. 25, Ullyett was humble. When asked to describe highlights of his 36-year career in the Yukon, he spoke of his compatriots in the Yukon government and justice ecosystems.
“Rarely was I the leader of the pack, I was mostly there to help support good ideas,” Ullyett said.
“I’ve worked with some amazing people. They’re amazing because of their work ethic, they’re amazing because of their brilliance, they’re amazing because of their sense of collegiality.”
While working for the Yukon government, Ullyett prioritized increasing access to the justice system, which he described as another highlight of his career.
“From a justice perspective, (we were) trying to improve the administration of justice and trying to make it more real and accessible to members of the public,” Ullyett said.
Ullyett was part of the team that established the Yukon’s Community Wellness Court in 2007, which takes a therapeutic approach to addressing the root causes of criminal offenses. It targets individuals with addictions, mental health problems and Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD).
A few years after the Wellness Court was established, the likelihood of participants offending again was seen to diminish from 75 to 33 per cent.
“That became something the whole country was interested in,” Ullyett said.
Ullyett has seen the Yukon’s justice landscape change drastically in the last three decades. The biggest change, he said, has been in the recognition of Indigenous systems of law and the introduction of self-governing First Nations.
“There’s another order of government and I think in the Yukon we’ve come to recognize that more than anywhere in the country,” he said.
The mosaic of the profession itself has also changed. “The face of the bar has changed. It used to be a man’s job … like so many areas of the workforce,” Ullyett said.
“Our first female lawyer in Yukon was not until the mid-70’s … so it took decades. If you look at the stats of the bar today — we have (161) lawyers in the Yukon and 91 are female.”
While the Yukon has seen improvements in broadening the spectrum of lawyers and increasing access to the legal system, there is still work to be done in both areas. Ullyett expressed awareness of his own place within that system.
“I also recognize in receiving this award, that I do come from a place of privilege. I grew up in a white, middle-class, urban environment with a stable family life,” Ullyett said.
“It’s quite possible if I was Black, I wouldn’t be sitting here with you right now. Or if I was South Asian, or Indigenous. So, we have our own issues to deal with.
“Before we try to change anything, the first part is recognition and acknowledgment of who we are and the challenges we still have.”
Contact Gabrielle Plonka at firstname.lastname@example.org