Retired York Region Chairman William Fisch offers grads a masterclass in ethics

Bill Fisch stands at the podium on the convocation stage.
Bill Fisch stands at the podium on the convocation stage.
William Fisch

Osgoode Hall alumnus William Fisch (JD ’74), a respected lawyer, former city councilor and regional government chairperson, returned to his alma mater on Friday, June 16 to receive an honorary doctor of laws degree from York University during spring convocation ceremonies.

As chairman and chief executive officer of the Regional Municipality of York from 1997 to 2014, Fisch demonstrated steadfast commitment to enhancing the York Region community at a time when it had become Canada’s fastest-growing constituency. Fisch received his JD from Osgoode Hall Law School and practiced law in Thornhill before entering local politics. During his time in office, he advocated for the University’s interests by spearheading initiatives such as the new subway extension, and by lending instrumental support for the University’s proposal for a new Markham Centre campus and the opening of the eponymous Bill Fisch Forest Stewardship and Education Centre, a living laboratory where visitors learn about forest ecosystems and natural resources.

In his trademark gentle but firm style, Fisch’s honorary degree address to graduands of the Faculties of Health and Environmental Studies was a masterclass in ethics and how to thrive and earn respect as a politician. During his address, Fisch also took the time to reflect on his own life and the rewarding intersections with York University.

“I received my law degree at Osgoode. I have connections to York University starting almost 50 years ago. How strange fate can be,” said Fisch, “I remember in 1968 driving all the way up to York University to visit my then-girlfriend, who I am happy to say is now my wife of 46 years.

“In that year, it was a fledgling campus in many respects. It was one big open field. I recall there was one group of colleges, my wife was a member of McLaughlin College,” he said, noting with a grin that York University in the late 1960s was a very different place, complete with windswept fields and a few buildings.

William Fisch is congratulated by York University Chancellor Greg Sorbara

That was York’s beginning, said Fisch, and over the years he watched with delight as the University grew into an internationally recognized centre of learning with a stellar reputation for its many and varied faculties.

He spoke about his important role in helping that growth by bringing transit in the form of new bus routes and the Spadina subway extension to the Keele campus. Then, in 2014, he worked with the University to bring a satellite campus to York Region. “A year before I retired, I was approached by York President and Vice-Chancellor Mamdouh Shoukri to assist him in his quest to open a satellite campus in York Region. That was also my quest at the time. About three months before I left office the province announced their approval for a campus in Markham.

“These accomplishments were all team efforts, I was the leader of the team and when progress stalled or faltered; I stepped in and did what needed to be done to make a tough phone call, take part in the difficult negotiations, and sometimes make the ultimate decisions, all behind the scenes. That was my job, my responsibility,” he said. “But on route to each success, I always made sure that I recognized the people I worked with, and for me. My successes were their successes, and by recognizing them, I gained not only their respect but also their willingness to extend themselves again and again.

“I tell you this because as you proceed into the next stage of your life, you may at times be the leader and at times not, but always lead with strength and humility. Complete your part of each team effort with pride and confidence as you proceed to make your mark in the world, which I advise you to do so not just by what you achieve but by how you achieve it,” he said.

“My next piece of advice paraphrases a line that many of you are familiar with, which is ‘to thy own self, be true,’ I would say to ‘others be true.’ This refers to promises. As a lawyer and a politician, I was asked to help many individuals and groups and I was asked to make many promises.

Bill Fisch stands at the podium on the convocation stage.
William Fisch delivers his convocation address to graduands of the Faculites of Health and Environmental Studies

“My policy was to never make a promise that I did not have the ability to or capacity to keep, but once that promise was given, I made sure to always deliver on it. If you gain a reputation for always delivering on your promises, people remember that your word can be trusted,” he said.

Finally, he asked graduands to remember to treat everyone they encounter in their lives with the respect and to value other opinions.