In conversation with Murray Segal

April 11, 2024
Murray Segal, former Deputy Attorney General of Ontario, has served on CMHA Toronto’s board of directors since 2015. Now approaching the end of his term, he spoke with us about why he was motivated to volunteer with CMHA Toronto, what he sees as the role of the board in supporting the organization, some of CMHA Toronto’s key achievements during his tenure, and why he would encourage other leaders to consider volunteering.

This conversation has been edited for clarity.

Murray, on behalf of CMHA Toronto, we extend our deep gratitude to you for your long years of volunteer service. You joined the CMHA Toronto board in November 2015. What led to your interest in CMHA Toronto and motivated you to volunteer?

MS: I was involved in government for almost 35 years. As such, I could not be on a board even though I was interested.

While I was Ontario’s Deputy Attorney General, I gave a talk at a kick-off for mental health awareness month to our employees and guests. Steve Lurie, then Executive Director of CMHA Toronto, was there. He suggested that I might be able to join a committee, which didn't create the same kind of conflict. So, I joined the quality control committee of CMHA Toronto and that was very rewarding.

Once I retired from government in 2012 and went into private practice, I joined the Centre for Addictions & Mental Health (CAMH)’s board of trustees and, a short time later, the CMHA Toronto board of directors.

At that event, I apologized for being late and explained that I had been dealing with a rather upset son. I have two sons, both with profound mental health issues. That’s what led to my interest in working with organizations involved in mental health.

A lot of people came up to me afterward and said that my remarks about my son were the most important part of what I said, because I had talked openly about having a personal understanding of individuals who have mental health and addictions issues.

That wasn't my only exposure, although that's quite the exposure: living with two sons who’ve experienced mental health challenges all their adult lives, since they were teenagers.

As the chief prosecutor for Ontario for many years, prior to becoming the deputy attorney general, I encountered a lot of clients and people with lived experience in the criminal justice system. So that was another introduction to the great work of CMHA Toronto and CAMH.

I do some other things that intersect with people experiencing mental health and addictions. I am an alternate chair on the Ontario Review Board, which deals with forensic patients in the system, including some who are residents of secure forensic hospitals. These are people who have been found not guilty by reason of mental disorder. They're entitled to an annual hearing, and I do a fair amount of that.

Given my family situation and these other experiences, I find the work of CMHA Toronto to be particularly important and rewarding.

How do you bring your prior work with the government and in the areas you just described to your work on CMHA Toronto’s board? How does it influence or intersect with your role as a board director?

MS: Oh, it's an interesting question for sure. It obviously drove my interest and my passion. It gives me some up-close and personal insight into some of the problems that people have – problems with housing, training, employment, relapse, those sorts of issues.

There is some intersection between CMHA Toronto programming and people involved in the justice system. I have a little bit of expertise in that area that helps me, but it's more a general understanding of people with lived experience, which I think is pretty important.

There is a weightiness that goes with being the father of young people and then adults who have these issues. It never, ever goes away. Maybe in my own attempt to cope with that, I thought it might be useful to have an outlet to contribute, and to have a bit of a pressure valve release, by working in the community and understanding this particular world some more.

Given the increased prevalence of mental health issues in our society, the health care crisis, the mental health care crisis, the escalation of homelessness, and so on, where do you see the board playing a role supporting the organization in that context?

MS: At the outset, it's important to recognize that the board does have an oversight role, not in relation to operational decisions, but in supporting good practices, good policies, great service, and high-level oversight of the direction of the board.

It's important that the board, and the board chair, have a great relationship with the organization's leaders. That's primarily through the chief executive officer and we're very fortunate to have Michael Anhorn [CMHA Toronto’s current CEO]. The board and I have a wonderful relationship with him, as we did with his longtime predecessor, Steve Lurie.

It falls upon the board chair to develop a really good one-on-one relationship with the CEO or executive director, to give them encouragement, to discuss particularly sensitive issues, to lend an ear, and to learn where the board can assist the organization.

As you noted, there's a great demand for mental health and addiction services. There is a profound shortage of affordable housing for people who have those particular challenges. The board can encourage the organization to look at opportunities in a host of areas, such as partnerships with other like-minded organizations; advocacy, in terms of getting the message out; excellent government relations because the province, the city, and to some extent the federal government are the principal funders; exploring and coming up with an approach to philanthropy; keeping an eye on our general finances; and looking at new ways to better connect with people who may need our services.

To use the last example, there have been some tremendous opportunities in the last several years to establish programs for youth in crisis, including those involved in the justice system. We’ve seized new opportunities to obtain and supervise crisis beds for those who need immediate transitional assistance.

I think more and more people are looking to CMHA Toronto as a leader within the community for these service enhancements.

We're blessed to have CAMH as a large hospital with wonderful experts and programs, but it’s organizations such as CMHA Toronto and others like them that do the great work in the community and, especially, focusing on disadvantaged communities, those with a large quotient of new immigrants, of racialized people, Indigenous people – people who are struggling in the city.
So, to come back to your question, while the challenges are very high in terms of demand on services, the opportunities to do even better work, perhaps in partnership with others, to assist clients are equally unbounded. You've got to be an optimist in this world!

You mentioned that you're coming to the end of your term with CMHA Toronto. When you look back on the time that you've spent with them, what would be some of the highlights for you?

MS: Well, there are a few. Overall, they’re about ensuring that there are high quality services with low risk to our clients, that we're doing everything well, and that we are ensuring there are minimal adverse consequences; that we’re taking steps to make sure that quality control is iterative and a process of continuous improvement.

A second area that is quite impressive is the growth of the organization, which means that more clients are being served. There has been significant growth in staffing and programming.

There’s been tremendous success with government relations, resulting in last year's unparalleled and long overdue correction to base funding. Hopefully that will continue. We had a successful compensation review and adjustment to ensure that our wonderful staff are compensated appropriately.

We had a significant and successful transition from having an executive director for over 30 years to recruiting Michael. It’s been a pleasure working with him and seeing him grow. In addition to Michael, we're blessed with a tremendous and seasoned senior management team and they have a wonderful and dedicated staff. We've been recognized recently as a Canadian Non-profit Employer of Choice.

We've started a philanthropy program. We are being recognized more and more as a ‘can-do’ organization that can lead change and innovation when funders like the province and the city are looking for leaders and partners.

At the programming level, the inception and growth of a crisis response service for people in need is wonderful.

The work of staff to provide integrated pathways to recovery, a rich social response involving education and therapies, sometimes housing assistance, recognizing that social well-being is as impactful as medication and professional help, is an important evolution. The organization keeps growing and making more and more impactful contributions to people with mental health and addiction challenges.

What would you say to other leaders about the value and importance of volunteering for a board or serving in another volunteer capacity?

MS: I would certainly encourage everyone with skills to think about what their passions are, what would be a good connection for them and that passion, and to identify areas where they might be able to contribute. In addition to working hard in whatever your day job is, think about how you can best give back.

For my personal journey, [working with the boards of CAMH and CMHA Toronto] has been extremely rewarding. It's great to be associated with such a positive and progressive organization, and such an important cause.

You know, it takes time to volunteer, in whatever way you do. Whether it's hands on, or sitting on a board, or being involved in another capacity, it's all really worthwhile. And it benefits from people with different perspectives, people with different cultural and ethnic and racial backgrounds, people with different skills, people with different learning and lived experiences.

I've learned a ton from other board members. It's a wonderful thing to meet other like-minded people, to learn from them and their different backgrounds, and to grow together.

So please consider doing it. And don't wait until you're retired! Volunteering provides another form of what we now refer to as work-life balance in my thinking.

It has been a fantastic experience, a lot of fun and very rewarding.

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