It was 2000, and Erin O’Toole, graduate of the Royal Military College of Canada, had completed nine years of service with Canada’s military and was preparing to study law at Dalhousie University while serving in the reserves. He had decided to return to civilian life, but not before he made a vow to his commanding officer that he would remain an active friend of the military.
That vow led O’Toole to start the True Patriot Love Foundation. Launched in 2009, the initiative is dedicated to building bridges between Canadian civilians and their military, in order to better understand and appreciate the sacrifices of soldiers and their families.
“I may not be in uniform –but it’s allowed me to feel like I’m still serving in another way.”
Through his service as a Foundation founder and director, O’Toole has helped raise $10 million from Canadians to date, and those funds are being invested in programs that support the health and wellness of military members, veterans, and their families.
“Speaking with the families makes it all worthwhile because they really know people care. That’s more important in a lot of cases than the money or the assistance. It’s really knowing that people care and are trying to understand their circumstances.”
O’Toole has a history of understanding circumstances and making a difference. He says his family was very much active in the community, noting that his father’s favourite expression was ‘To whom much is given, much is expected.’ He was further influenced by his time at Dalhousie, where professors like Wayne MacKay encouraged him to think about the impact he could have on the world.
“What I learned was something you’d call audi alteram partem, which means ‘hear the other side,’ I came in being a young ex-military guy, fairly confident in my political and philosophical view. And what I liked about Dalhousie was that the classes encouraged you to mix it up in terms of ideas, positions and viewpoints.”
That learning certainly helped O’Toole excel in the legal profession. He’s served as an in-house counsel for Procter & Gamble in Canada, receiving five company awards for leadership during his time there. Later, her joined the national law firm of Heenan Blaikie in Toronto as a corporate lawyer leading the firms business development efforts. In 2009, he was selected as a finalist in the Tomorrow’s Leader category of the Canadian General Counsel Award. He also participated in the 2012 Governor General’s Canadian Leadership Conference.
Even as he provides exceptional legal advice to clients, O’Toole’s commitment to the military remains strong. In addition to True Patriot Love, the former Air Force navigator is the founder and co-chair of the annual Rev. John Weir Foote, V.C. Memorial Military Luncheon. In fact, this series of lunches, where military luminaries such as Gen. Rick Hillier and Walt Natynczyk share their experiences with business audiences, was the inspiration for True Patriot Love.
O’Toole is happy to see thousands of Canadians step up to lend their support to True Patriot Love, including his law firm and his wife Rebecca, who is a graduate of the University of King’s College in Halifax. “I think we’re helping Canadians show their appreciation to their military and military families. We’re giving them a vehicle to show that support in a number of ways, and not just financially.”
Meanwhile, O’Toole has found a new way to serve his community, having been elected last fall as the Conservative MP for Durham, ON. It’s that seemingly unlimited commitment to making a difference that earned him the 2012 Dalhousie Alumni Association Christopher J. Coulter Young Alumnus Award. The award recognizes graduates under the age of 40 for interesting, unusual or innovative accomplishments in society, the community or Dalhousie.
“I’m touched because I’ve looked at past award winners and am honoured to be in their company. If I can encourage other young Dalhousie graduates to get active as soon as they get out in their professional careers, then it’s a tremendous way to be recognized.”