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A CLASSIC example of generosity: Belsher funds access to justice initiatives

By Sarah Trefiak 

The Merlis Belsher Access to Justice Fund has been established following a donation of more than $500,000 to the College of Law from Mr. Merlis Belsher (BComm’57, LLB’63). The fund will support a variety of access to justice initiatives at the college including supporting clinical experiences for students through the Community Legal Services for Saskatoon Inner City (CLASSIC) and facilitating the engagement of students in other experiential learning opportunities, such as conferences related to access to justice issues.

Sharing has been a part of Belsher’s philosophy since he was very young. Raised on a farm near McCord, Sask., Belsher was aware of the importance his parents, his mother in particular, placed on education and community involvement. “My mother was a teacher at a young age and was extremely interested in education and volunteer work. She was involved in the community, church and on the local school board.”

Following his parents’ tragic death when Belsher was only 15, he was accepted into Regina’s Luther College as a dorm student where he completed his high school education. A combination of his strong work ethic and the structured academic program at Luther allowed Belsher to achieve grades that landed him at the College of Commerce at the University of Saskatchewan. There he completed his accounting degree and later became a Chartered Accountant (CA). He paid his way through university by picking up jobs at Atlas Lumber in Edmonton and Hudson’s Bay in Saskatoon.

After receiving his CA designation, Belsher had his eye on a new goal—a law degree.  He started a small accounting practice to finance his way through law school, knowing that the combination of education in both accounting and law would broaden his choices for a career. However juggling the two was a challenge. “I did find the commitment of law school heavy as I had ongoing responsibilities for my accounting clients.”

The hard work paid off. Shortly after being admitted to the bar, Belsher was able to purchase Weldon Concrete Products, a precast concrete manufacturing business. “My education qualifications made bank borrowing possible and also allowed me to exercise discretion in my business decisions,” he explained.

Over the years, Belsher grew his company. He sold it in 2008, while still retaining some equity, but in 2013, the entire enterprise was sold. During that time, Belsher began to look for opportunities where he could assist those in need. Jennifer Molloy, the college’s development officer at the time, introduced him to CLASSIC and it struck a chord. “I have had the privilege to visit the CLASSIC office and see in person what good work they do with the passionate support of the University of Saskatchewan, the College of Law, the dean, professors, law students and the volunteer commitment from lawyers.”

The CLASSIC office works to deliver two programs: a walk-in advocacy clinic and a legal advice clinic. The walk-in advocacy clinic provides clients with legal information and/or basic legal services. Law student advocates under the supervision of practicing lawyers assist clients in areas that include landlord-tenant issues, social assistance issues, labour standards, Canada Pension Plan benefits, immigration matters and more. The legal advice clinic is available to clients who have legal issues in the areas of criminal, family, civil or employment law. These clients, who do not have legal counsel and are self-represented, can book 30-minute appointments to discuss their issue with a practicing lawyer.

Sanjeev Anand, dean of the College of Law, said that Belsher’s gift is two-fold. “It ensures that legal services will be provided to the residents of the inner city, but it also helps to secure the future of the clinic so that our students can have a place to acquire essential experiential learning opportunities.”

Belsher hopes that his gift will change the lives of students and the people who use CLASSIC’s services, but was humble and hesitant to accept praise. “The people and institutions that deserve the credit are what I call the ‘foot soldiers’—the students, the faculty and the volunteers. A great deal of administration is necessary to make the process work.”

For Belsher, the need to help those in society who rely on CLASSIC was obvious. “Investment in the program can benefit everyone. The University of Saskatchewan supporting this community initiative through the College of Law and their professors provides a great service to this segment of society. CLASSIC also provides real-life learning experience to law students.” He added, “Law Society of Saskatchewan members also devote many hours of pro bono legal work to CLASSIC on an ongoing basis and the organization itself is a strong supporter of CLASSIC.”

Belsher takes great pride in the professional associations he has been a part of and felt they were key to his success. “The best advice I could offer to someone starting out in a profession is to never stop learning. And keep up with professional development. Honesty, integrity, humility and ethics must always be top of mind as a professional.”

Photo (l to r): Professor Glen Luther, Professor Sarah Buhler, Dean Sanjeev Anand, Merlis Belsher, U of S President Ilene Busch-Vishniac, Brian Nickel, major gifts officer, Chantelle Johnson, executive director of CLASSIC.

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2014 edition of of NOTE.