By Laurel Graham
When Justice Gloria Epstein turned 50, she celebrated by trekking, alone, for 10 days around the Ring of Kerry in Ireland. Now, I’ve done the drive and it is a no man’s land of winding one-way roads, mountains, lakes and the usual four-seasons-in-a-day Irish weather. Gloria set out with just a compass and an orange.
“I have a terrible sense of direction. I always think I’m facing north,” she admits with a slanted smile. “I wanted to test myself with no support mechanisms to see if I could live with myself and make my way around.”
She adds that the experience “was a chance to evaluate without any noise around me…(the trip) brought strength to my legs and my soul.”
In addition, Gloria also walked across England, went hiking in the Arctic and then “wanderlust was over”!
Gloria told me that story when we went on walk around Kingridge Stables in Ocala, Florida. Not quite as exciting as England or Ireland, but we had a great talk. I think that story captures the essence of Justice Gloria Epstein. She is always pushing herself to her limits, setting the bar higher and higher.
In May, Gloria was awarded a YWCA Woman of Distinction Award in Toronto for her active role in the community. However, all the titles in the world would not justify Gloria. Therefore, I give you, Justice Gloria Epstein, in all her colours.
When I went to the Superior Court of Justice to interview her, I had the feeling that I needed to be on my best behavior. I got through security and almost asked for “Aunt Glo” at reception. I’m not used to calling her Justice Gloria Epstein. Minutes passed and she emerged in a pale pink suit with blue-framed glasses. Very chic for a lady of the law!
A short walk and elevator ride later, we were in her office. I first notice the organized stacks of papers throughout the room. She pointed to each pile and said if they had been read, partly read or unread. After having a flashback to my college days – multiplied by 100 – I took in the space. Photographs of the Epstein family and of Gloria riding were displayed prominently on side tables.
I asked Gloria how she got into horses. She always had an interest in them, but her parents were of little means and couldn’t afford to give her lessons. She would buy books and horse stamps and attend the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair once in awhile.
Fast-forward to The Royal 2012 and you’ll discover that Gloria won the Adult Amateur Stake aboard a lovely horse named Moonshadow! That win was paved by a long rode.
“As a teenager, I worked on a dairy farm near Woodstock in the summers. They had a buckskin named King and I would get to sit on him and walk around,” she reflects.
But her desire to ride was unfulfilled until 1986. “Riding goes back to a passion that I thought I had when I was really young . . . I returned to that passion when I was 35,” Gloria explains. “I decided no more children and gave myself the opportunity to see if my interest in horses was real or if it was like being eight years old and wanting to be a princess.”
She took riding lessons at Sunnybrook Stables with eight and nine-year-olds and progressed passed walking to trot and canter.
“It was the first time I’d actually tacked up a horse,” she says, adding that all the mothers there watching their children ride would say, “That older woman is not bad!”
She started taking private lessons with Christina Batty, which led to her devoted husband, Seymour Epstein, buying her a horse. That led to Gloria saying, “You can’t have a horse without a farm.” And Kingridge Stables was born! While trying to find Gloria her dream horse, Seymour met Hugh Graham, my father. The two of them went to Sweden and came back with a horse named Mookey. Two decades and a couple hundred horses later and they have never looked back! Gloria comically rolls her eyes.
“I enjoy animals and a connection with animals,” she says. “I like to learn and test myself. It’s important, given the demands of my work, that I have something that separates me so completely from it.”
Of course, Gloria also has a competitive side and loves that aspect of the sport. But she admits her real competition is herself.
“It is my own sense of fulfillment of thinking that I am improving,” Gloria says. She claims she isn’t as concerned with getting red ribbons as she is about letting Hugh down. “I take a lot from Hugh’s reaction, because he takes a lot of time (to help me) and I want to respond to him by doing well.”
Gloria adds, “If I ride well, but we don’t do well that’s good. If I make a mistake and I still come 2nd or 3rd I’m not as happy, because I know I’ve made a mistake.”
It is evident that Gloria approaches riding like she approaches her work, “I strive to not make mistakes and to learn from my mistakes (and to know) that I’ve done my best.”
Gloria’s favorite horse was After Midnight. “We just had a great partnership and connection. I’m not saying it will never happen again, but we did really well for a long time,” she reflects. After Midnight was a Jumper, originally named High Voltage, who was turned into a Hunter. Gloria was overall champion with “High,” on the Canadian Circuit in the Adult Amateurs two years in a row.
A few horses later and Gloria is now competing on two horses: Moonshadow and Midnight Hour, her most recent mount. She was recently Champion and Reserve Champion in the Adult Amateurs at the Palgrave Summer Classic show in June 2013. That success was particularly rewarding. “I hadn’t been riding that much and it just came together one day,” she says.
When I ask her what she looks for in a horse she quickly replies, “What Hugh tells me!” She admits she does not have a good eye for a horse. Instead, Gloria judges a horse based on its temperament. She assesses people the same way. She values loyalty and honesty most in a person.
“I’m the person where the buttons are open and I have the ability to feel a lot and I make better contact with people who are willing to share who they really are,” Gloria says. She values forgiveness, compassion and a sense of humor.
Gloria is a strong woman with a soft heart. In her profession, she puts people’s lives before the law and delves into their personal stories.
She says, “I think being part of a system of justice is a real privilege, because there’s not a day that goes by that justice doesn’t matter.”
What makes Gloria tick is tackling new mountains every day, partaking in public service and being in a position to “have an impact on people’s lives.”
For example, Gloria was one of the pioneers to motion the M. v. H. case that legalized gay marriage. She had been a judge for six days and was put on a case where a member of a same sex partnership wanted to claim support from the courts. This “constitutional challenge” led to Gloria re-writing the legislation “so same sex couples could have the same rights.”
She was heavily criticized at the time, but is now hailed for starting a movement.
“It makes me enormously proud to look at Canada as a country that doesn’t discriminate. I go to Russia or the States and they still feel that gay people are sinners, demented or lesser,” says Gloria, who reads a letter she received from a Serbian homosexual describing his struggles in his native society.
Gloria is a woman who reaches out to the worthy. She walks over to a side table and comes back with a small glass sculpture with a photograph of a girl riding dressage on a black horse. She says nothing and begins to talk about watching CTV News one evening. A story came on about a girl with cerebral palsy who had qualified to compete at the 2008 Paralympics. The government agreed to pay for her transport to the Games, but not her horse.
That girl was Ashley Gowanlock. With the help of Gloria and her husband Seymour, as well as a friend who generously agreed to split the cost, they shipped the Para-Equestrian athlete’s horse overseas. Ashley gave her the glass sculpture. Gloria adjusts her eyes to read the tiny inscription on it. It says, “Thanks for joining the journey and sharing the dream.” Gloria smiles and says, “Do something kind every day.”
In between the serious discussions and touching talk, Gloria is in the middle of sending flowers to her daughter Lauren, who is being called the to the Bar. Our interview is interrupted when Seymour calls to discuss the flower situation. Gloria reassures him that she’s one step ahead of him. With Gloria’s hectic schedule one is left wondering how she has time to order flowers.
Gloria’s plate is full. Her “to do” list includes commissioning sculptures around the grounds of the Superior Court of Justice, acting as an advisor to the MBA Business School at Queen’s University, serving as President of the University of Toronto Alumni Association, sitting on the National Board of Directors for Pathways to Education and feeding the homeless on Wednesdays.
“I was raised in a home where serving the community is important,” Gloria says. After law school, having a baby, followed by another baby, a marriage break-up, and another baby, Gloria is actively making up for lost time and working for the greater good. Could Gloria be superwoman?
I ask her if she has any flaws. “I’m not too good at details!” she admits. If she could be an octopus with eight hands doing eight different things, perhaps she would. “I feel bad about sitting down and reading a book . . . relaxing makes me nervous.” I love that she admits to doing something we all do, misplacing keys, glasses and her cell phone. Alas, she is human after all.
Would she have done anything differently I wonder?
“I would have been a different mother,” she admits. “I had to mother two sons in a separated relationship. We did our best, but through life experience, I see that I could have done things differently.”
She goes on to tell the story of the hardest decision she ever had to make. It wasn’t concerning her family, but took place in the courtroom 18 years ago. A 50-year-old man and 23-year-old woman married and had a little girl. After only nine months, the marriage fell apart and they separated. The husband took his daughter every weekend. The mother went on a vendetta and put together evidence indicating that he had sexually abused their daughter. The case was brought before Gloria and the future of this father-daughter relationship was in her hands.
“I stewed over the decision, because if I got it wrong, if I said he wasn’t (abusing her) and he was, I was exposing this child to sexual abuse,” she explains. The evidence was balanced on both sides, but in the end Gloria made the right decision. The mother had fabricated the evidence and the father was clean. That was “the worst decision because of the consequences of getting it wrong. I would never want to get it wrong any time, but that little girl was so vulnerable, she would not yet be 20 now,” Gloria exclaimed.
Gloria works to give victims the chance to rise up from their circumstances. She helps raise money for the Canadian Women’s Foundation to improve the lives of abused women and single mothers across Canada.
“I think all of us have an obligation to be part of what makes this community and our society better,” Gloria says. “If we all just take what’s there, you can’t just expect it all to happen when people don’t contribute.”
Gloria is a modern female role model, but who is her hero? Gloria quickly names two people: her sister and her husband. “He doesn’t walk around waving his flag,” Gloria says of her husband. “He tries to help people in building their careers and finds people whose lives he can make better.”
Gloria’s sister, Carolyn, holds a very special place in her heart. She died of breast cancer at the age of 48.
“She was a speech specialist and helped autistic kids in schools. She was a good mother and teacher. I respect her,” she says. “In the last seven to eight months of her life, she started the Hearth Place in Oshawa and worked on it every day. Today it is a wonderful resource for the Durham area that services people who are fighting cancer. They have yoga and cooking classes etc. My sister got it all in her head to do it and she did it. She was phoning people in the hospital and doing all of that when she was dying.” Gloria smiles and adds, “She changed the world.”
Gloria has faced a lot of loss her in her life. When her mother passed away, she gave Gloria something very special. “When my parents had their 25th wedding anniversary, my dad gave my mom a diamond ring. It was a tiny diamond.”
A few days later they went on a trip to celebrate, but sadly Gloria’s father died of a heart attack at the Airport in Zurich.
“My mother got the boarding passes, came back and he was dead,” Gloria says, pausing for a moment of reflection. When Gloria’s mother died, she gave her daughter that diamond ring and it is her most treasured possession.
I ask Gloria what her idea of perfect happiness is. She answers, “A stable and fulfilling personal life, but that needs to be accompanied by being able to identify your passion and being able to pursue it.”
She continues, “Most people never figure out what turns their crank. If you’re 28 or 42, keep trying to find what makes you tick. Some people go through life and they never grab onto something or get the exhilaration and rewards that I do get from my job. I think that’s very sad.”
Whether you’re a “judge or a gardener,” she says, it has to be about more than a paycheque.
And don’t be afraid of making mistakes – a piece of advice for people of all ages, but particularly young girls finding their way in the world.
“I think that’s one of the main things that holds us back,” she says. “Some mistakes are big ones. I’ve made a few. But, most of them take you down a path. After awhile you might say, ‘That’s not the right choice’ and you pick something else, but you’ve learned something. To fail is not to try. Success can include failure, as long as you try to get something you care about.”