By Mark Campbell | Photo provided

Gail Rudderham Chernin (BComm’86, LLB’86), Q.C., cannot remember a time when she did not feel compelled to give back. “I believe that we all have an obligation to contribute to our community and to society in general,” she explains. “And I have always believed that the more fortunate you are, the greater the obligation.”

Inspired by that belief, and the example set by her family, the Cape Breton-born Schulich Law grad has devoted considerable time and energy to making the world a better place, not just as a lawyer but also through her community involvements. Starting with the Rotary Club as a teenager, Gail’s involvements have encompassed a wide range of organizations and passions over the years, often as a board member or chair. They include the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation (CBCF), Canadian Cancer Society (CCS), Cape Breton Family YMCA, United Way, Enterprise Cape Breton Corporation, and Make-a-Wish Atlantic Provinces. She has also applied her knowledge and skills in advancing the legal profession through her work with the Nova Scotia Barristers’ Society (NSBS)—an involvement so extensive that she has served on almost every committee as chair or member in addition to serving as president of the society from 2003 to 2004.

The Weldon Tradition

It is this legacy that is being honoured with the 2021 Weldon Award for Unselfish Public Service. Since 1983, this award has recognized law school alumni that have made outstanding contributions to the community and the legal profession. The award is named for Richard Chapman Weldon, the founding dean of Dalhousie University’s Schulich School of Law. He was known for his commitment to unselfish public service, referred to as the Weldon Tradition.

“Gail carried the Weldon spirit even before and certainly after she entered law school,” says Elizabeth Cusack, Q.C., one of many colleagues who nominated Gail for the award. “She has, with good humour and grace, unselfishly, with no expectation of personal gain, made major contributions to leadership in the legal profession, public education, and service to her community, the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation, and numerous organizations. At the same time, she has practiced law with strong professional ethics, skill, compassion, and the best possible outcomes for clients that could be expected under the circumstances of their cases.”

Gail’s work, in particular her involvement with NSBS, suggests she was destined to enter the field of law. But that’s not quite the case. She had originally been interested in sciences, but she decided to pursue a business degree at Dalhousie based on part-time work experiences during high school. After graduating, she joined Xerox, which was introducing fax machines to the world. “We decided to start with law firms,” she recalls. “After meeting with lawyers and working in that area, I thought I needed to gain more education.”

There were several options she considered, including an MBA and dentistry, but Gail opted for law based on practical considerations such as career opportunities. “I never had a grand plan,” she explains. “I wanted to work hard, and I wanted to be recognized as a good lawyer. I never strived to be the best. I just feel that we should all try to do our best.”

In many ways, she has. As a lawyer, Gail demonstrated the Weldon Tradition through her devotion to plaintiff insurance law and workers compensation cases, which she describes as David-versus-Goliath experiences. “Many of these clients are very stressed because they are down and out,” she says. “I remember one client calling me to say their house was going to be foreclosed upon that same day, and that was not a rare occasion. Being able to help them is very satisfying and that is how that desire to make a difference manifested professionally.”

A guiding light for the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation

On the community side, the desire to make a difference was frequently rooted in personal connections, such as her involvement with CBCF. It was her mother, Dot, a breast cancer survivor, who encouraged Gail to join. “She told me they were looking for people and at first I said, ‘I can’t. I’m involved in too many other things,’” Gail recalls. “My mother told me, ‘You can find the time. They need people like you, and you can add a lot to the organization.’”

Gail’s mom was right. As she progressed from board member to chair, Gail helped guide the foundation through a major restructuring and consolidation effort, resulting in a national organization with more stable financing. That experience opened the door to an unprecedented undertaking as she helped merge the CBCF with the CCS. The result was a bottom-line improvement of $33 million for CCS and, more important, the continuation of critical cancer research and support programs across Canada.

“If my mother had developed breast cancer 20 years prior to her diagnosis, she might have died, but she was able to live for another 20 years because of research,” Gail says. “Helping the foundation secure more money for cancer research was an incredible effort to be part of.”

Lynn Hudson was CEO of the CBCF when she first met Gail, and she was immediately impressed by her colleague’s efforts to strengthen the foundation.  “I have worked with hundreds of volunteers and Gail is a standout for her truly selfless commitment to the causes she works with,” says Hudson, who is now CEO of Make-a-Wish Canada. “She gives generously of her time, talent and passion and directs her energies to activities that will bring the most value to charitable organizations, people, and communities. Her commitment is an example to all and is so well deserving of the Weldon Award.”

Helping to make the world a better place

Gail has transitioned to a new way of helping others and upholding the Weldon Tradition. Recently retired, she is offering her extensive legal expertise as a mediator so that her clients can avoid the stress, risk, and time commitment involved in litigation. On the community side, she has stepped back a bit to focus on family, but she is a board member of Make-a-Wish Atlantic Provinces and is open to adding other involvements if the right opportunity presents itself.

“I want to encourage others to think of how they can help, particularly lawyers, because we are in a unique position where we can offer assistance with a lot of difficult scenarios not just in the work that we do but also in the ways that we can help foster a better community,” she says. “We have knowledge that is sought after for committees and boards, and it is important we use that to make a difference. If everyone did that, even a little bit, the world would be a better place.”