Pioneering police chief Christine Silverberg receives Honorary Doctor of Laws

Fighting discrimination with community-building and integrity

Pioneering police chief Christine Silverberg.

Christine Silverberg became the first female chief of a major Canadian city’s police service in 1995 when she was named chief constable of the Calgary Police Service.

Christine Silverberg has won many more battles than she has lost. She shattered the glass ceiling in Canadian law enforcement and continues today to dismantle barriers within communities and represent the causes of marginalized people. And yet, she says, her approach to life can be represented by three fridge magnets:

"This life must be a test — if it were the real thing, we'd be given better instructions."

"You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face … Do the thing you think you cannot do."

"If you are going to doubt something, doubt your limits."

But to reduce Silverberg’s story and approach to life to a few pop psychology phrases would undermine her determination, her passion and the energy she has summoned to achieve so much while challenging societal norms and encountering biases and hostility.

In recognition of those achievements, Mount Royal University bestowed Silverberg with an Honorary Doctor of Laws during the afternoon Convocation ceremony on June 9 in front of graduates from the Faculty of Arts.

“The awarding of an Honorary Doctor of Laws from Mount Royal is an incredible honour and privilege,” Silverberg says. “It is, in some respects, a validation of my life purpose — to serve others. It is also a confirmation of the ‘rightness’ of using our gifts, our knowledge, our skills, our positions in society and our moral strength to the betterment of our communities and the lives of people in distress.”

Silverberg became the first female chief of a major Canadian city’s police service in 1995 when she was named chief constable of the Calgary Police Service (CPS). By then she had already distinguished herself as a trailblazer, working in a women’s correctional centre after graduating from university, before becoming the first female police recruit in Mississauga. There, Silverberg was assigned to cases involving juvenile offenders, child abuse and missing persons, as well as working undercover when needed.

After Mississauga merged with four other forces to become the Peel Regional Police, Silverberg was frequently assigned to special projects. She led a new Community Relations and Crime Prevention Bureau and later a Special Accidents and Investigations team where she was ultimately promoted to inspector.

In 1990, Silverberg was appointed to a senior role in the Policing Services Division of Ontario’s Ministry of the Solicitor General, a position that included auditing and inspecting municipal police forces, facilitating investigations into police misconduct and advising police governing authorities, police chiefs and police associations on governance, management and operations.

Two years later, Silverberg was named deputy chief of what was then known as the Hamilton Wentworth Regional Police Force (now Hamilton Police Service).

“As a woman in the policing profession, I encountered discrimination, sexual harassment and, of course, the inequitable but essential need to prove myself, constantly,” Silverberg says.

“But I knew then, and know now, that destroying the barriers, creating social change is not going to occur in one fell swoop on a given day when all of humanity wakes up suddenly enlightened. It is built brick by brick, issue by issue, person by person, moment by moment.”

Other female officers viewed Silverberg as an advocate for them.

“Christine Silverberg was the first to demonstrate that it was possible to challenge the status quo and still be successful as a woman in policing,” says Dr. Tam Pozzobon, EdD, who recently retired as a superintendent and was part of a paltry eight per cent of sworn officers in the CPS who were women when Silverberg joined as chief. “Her commitment to lifelong learning further inspired me to pursue graduate degrees in leadership and education.”

By the time Silverberg arrived in Calgary she had already earned her undergraduate degree in sociology and political science, as well as a master’s degree in criminology. When she retired from the CPS in 2000, declining to continue for a second five-year term, she did so to earn a law degree and embark on a new career.

Silverberg practiced in Calgary at Gowlings, where she became partner, before joining Wolch, deWit, Silverberg and Watts from 2008 to 2015. Silverberg then established SilverbergLegal and remains active in civil and family litigation, advocacy and regulatory defence.

“Lifelong learning is about understanding that all successful journeys in life are circular, which means there are no junctures, beginnings or ends,” she says. “Continual learning from all our triumphs, successes and disappointments is the first fundamental ingredient distinguishing successful people.”

The common threads through Silverberg’s policing and legal careers include managing and resolving difficult situations and advocacy for those seeking justice. Silverberg has frequently served on non-profit and community boards, professional associations, and post-secondary and government committees.

“I had the true privilege of working with Christine during the 2018/19 academic term when we both sat as advisors on the Government of Alberta’s Police Act Reform Committee,” says Dr. Kelly Sundberg, PhD, an associate professor in MRU’s Department of Economics, Justice and Policy Studies.

“Drawing from her extensive policing and legal experience, Christine proved an outstanding leader on this committee — seeking to ensure the new Police Act for Alberta was grounded on a foundation of ethics, integrity, fairness and accountability.”

Silverberg’s message for the class of 2021 is a reminder of the foundation each graduand has received from MRU: “Graduating students have an ace up their sleeves. They have attended an institution that values and cultivates an entrepreneurial spirit,” Silverberg says.

“No matter what discipline, each student has developed the grit and skills to change with the times, to adapt and reinvent through lifelong learning and to thrive in our turbulent society, despite the hurdles.”

That foundation, and perhaps the encouragement of a few fridge magnets, will see MRU’s newest graduates through the next chapters of their lives.

June 2, 2021 — Matthew Fox

Watch the live stream of Mount Royal’s 2021 Spring Convocation ceremonies, which are happening in a drive-in format. Eight ceremonies will take place from June 7 to June 10.