When Brad Berg and Brian Rolfes discovered that there was no scholarship at the University of Saskatchewan that specifically recognized students for their involvement in advancing LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) rights, they decided to do something about it.
The pair have committed $25,000 over four years to fund the new Brad Berg and Brian Rolfes LGBT Rights Scholarship, which aims to recognize students’ exemplary commitment to the pursuit of LGBT rights through their program of study or outreach activities in the greater community.
While there are currently two awards offered at the U of S which provide funds to students researching or studying the topic of LGBT rights, theirs is the first where the selection committee invites applicants to self-declare as LGBT persons. “It was surprising to us that this was the first scholarship of its kind,” said Berg, who, along with his husband, Brian Rolfes, is proud to be able to make this contribution, having experienced first-hand the difficulties LGBT persons may face while pursuing an education and establishing a career.
Berg, who grew up in Meadow Lake, completed his commerce and law degrees from the University of Saskatchewan before clerking at the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal in 1993. It was there that he met fellow College of Law alumnus, Brian Rolfes, who had completed a Rhodes Scholarship at Oxford before returning to Saskatchewan to clerk.
It wasn’t until they began their relationship that Berg and Rolfes felt they were ready to tell their family and friends that they were gay. This was especially true for Berg, who grew up in a smaller community. “I think it is still very difficult to come out if you grow up outside of the cities and that is one of the reasons why we really wanted to create this scholarship at home, in Saskatchewan.”
While both acknowledge that over the years it has become less difficult to come out, neither felt that they were ready to do so during their time at the College of Law. “In the late 1980s and early 1990s, whenever anything related to gays or LGBT came up on campus, it was always portrayed as negative,” said Berg.
“I think that when we were both at the College of Law, it would have been great to have a few more role models and more visibility on the topic, so hopefully this scholarship, in some way, will help do that,” added Rolfes.
The Toronto duo hopes that their new award will encourage not only LGBT students to share their commitment to LGBT rights, but non-LGBT students, as well.
“All of the data indicate that peoples’ views on LGBT rights change fundamentally when they know someone who is LGBT. So anything we can do to allow people to be who they are is a good thing,” said Rolfes, emphasizing that the award is also open to LGBT allies. “That is how the world will change. One, because individuals come out, and two, because straight friends and family will say ‘no, this isn’t fair’ or ‘I am going to change attitudes on LGBT issues too.’”
The award they have created at the U of S is only one example of what Berg and Rolfes have done to further the advancement of LGBT rights. Both men have become heavily involved in promoting and understanding LGBT rights in their workplaces and the larger Toronto community.
Rolfes, a global recruiting partner with McKinsey & Company, was instrumental in founding GLAM, a group of over 300 members and 700 allies which was created to foster a positive environment for LGBT employees at the company and attract more talented LGBT members to the McKinsey community. He was also chair of the board for the largely LGBT Metropolitan Community Church of Toronto for eight years, including the period over which church successfully litigated to have same-sex marriages recognized in Canada.
Berg, who is a partner and litigation practice group leader at Blake, Cassels & Graydon LLP, has been a board member of Family Services Toronto, a volunteer at AIDS Committee of Toronto and has served on the executive of the Advocates’ Society. Like Rolfes did at McKinsey, Berg helped to found a network at Blakes called Pride@Blakes to support LGBT employees and create better connections with their LGBT clients.
“Both Brad and I are very fortunate to live in Toronto and work with large organizations that are LGBT-inclusive and welcoming. We have been a part of the leadership at our respective firms, something that is truly valued by us,” said Rolfes. “We are proud of these contributions, and of this new scholarship.”
While Berg and Rolfes have found success in their careers, their rise to the top hasn’t been without struggle. “When I came out in 1993, I didn’t encounter very much of what I would call hostility or opposition, but there was a fair degree of education needed about LGBT issues. It took a while for our families and friends to understand what it all meant,” said Berg.
They both admit that they have also faced discrimination based on their sexual orientation, but they haven’t let it affect their careers. “There have been incidents along the way,” admitted Berg. “When I was a graduate student at the University of Toronto, my office door was spray-painted with the words ‘kill fags’ and there have been small incidents like that, but nothing that we believe has held us back.”
The two Toronto professionals have advice for LGBT law students and alumni. “My advice is if you can, then you should be out,” said Berg. “I think you will present as a more authentic, fully-formed, contributing person when you go into a job interview, look for a promotion or pitch to a client. It’s just an overwhelmingly far healthier space to be in.” But Berg understands not everyone is ready for that, so he puts a caveat on his advice. “I always say if you are ready to come out, then do it.”
Rolfes agreed. “If employers are going to discount your application because you are gay, you don’t want to be a part of that organization anyway. They are going to be on the losing side of history.”
Speaking from a human resources perspective, Rolfes knows that the war for talent is on. “Increasingly, employers are realizing that talent comes in all shapes and sizes, all genders and orientations. Those organizations that can truly be inclusive, in the long run, are going to be the winning firms.” He added, “The best employers look at the ‘full-self’ of the candidate in front of them and say, ‘This is someone we can celebrate as a leader in this community or for that project—that’s the kind of person we want as a future partner or leader around here.’”
Both because they hope to improve the experience of LGBT students pursuing their education in the College of Law and because of their own experience at the U of S, Rolfes and Berg could think of no better place to establish a scholarship. They are extremely grateful for having started both their legal paths, as well as their married life, at this university.
“Brian and I got married in March 1998 in the United Church at St. Andrew’s Chapel on campus with 130 family and friends in attendance,” said Berg. “Gay marriage didn’t become legal until 2003, so having our wedding ceremony on campus in 1998 is just another reason we really wanted to create this scholarship at the U of S.”
“The University of Saskatchewan will always be—in a very special way—our home university,” added Rolfes.
Photo: Brad Berg (LLB’92) and Brian Rolfes (LLB’91)