November 22, 2023 | Volunteer & Awards

Human rights champion named inaugural Carl Mitchell Award recipient

Renowned litigator R. Douglas Elliot, who has won landmark cases on behalf of the 2SLGBTQI+ community, is the inaugural recipient of the Carl Mitchell Community Impact Award.

Douglas Elliott standing in front of a Pride flag

Doug Elliott is renowned for overseeing breakthrough 2SLGBTQI+ settlements.

On February 5, 1981, Toronto Police raided four downtown bathhouses and charged hundreds of patrons for being found in a common bawdy house. The raid was an escalation after years of police brutality and intimidation and, for many members of Toronto’s gay community, a breaking point.

For Doug Elliott (JD 1982) – a U of T law student at the time – it was a galvanizing moment.

“They paraded people out onto the street naked and then went in with crowbars and smashed the places to put them out of business,” recalls Elliott. “It was disgusting. It was Nazi Gestapo tactics as far as I was concerned.”

Community organizers planned a protest march at midnight the following evening. Despite the personal risks, Elliott decided to join. “I was really nervous about it because I thought I might never be a lawyer if I got arrested. I could get kicked out of U of T, and even if I’m allowed to graduate, I might not be allowed to become a lawyer.”

One of Canada's top litigators

Doug Elliott talking into a microphone on stage with an interviewer
Doug Elliott with UTAA Past President Sana Halwani (JD 2004). 

Elliott’s decision to march heavily influenced his career and saw him go on to become one of Canada’s top litigators, renowned for breakthrough 2SLGBTQI+ settlements.

His landmark victories as lead counsel include judgments recognizing same-sex common-law relationships, securing Canada Pension Plan survivor’s pensions for gay and lesbian Canadians, and a class-action lawsuit for thousands of people fired from federal government jobs in the 1950s and 60s  the so-called LGBT Purge.

“For years, the law had been used to oppress us. Then we started using the law to win our freedom and rights. To fight back against our oppressors. To hold them to account in the courts,” says Elliott.

The Carl Mitchell Community Impact Award

Doug holding his award, surrounded by people
Doug with his award. From left to right: UTAA President Corwin Cambray (MScPl 1999), Carl's son Thomas Mitchell, daughter Nancy Mitchell, and former wife Margaret Shaw (BA 1986 Victoria). 

In recognition of his historic achievements and prodigious efforts to support 2SLGBTQI+ communities at home and abroad, the University of Toronto Alumni Association (UTAA) has awarded Elliott the inaugural Carl Mitchell Community Impact Award.

Named for past UTAA president Carl Mitchell, the award recognizes alumni who advance the principles of equity, diversity and inclusion through their extraordinary volunteer contributions to the community at large. Elliot was formally presented with the award at an event on November 22 in the Jackman Law Building, attended by university and UTAA leaders and an enthusiastic gathering of the U of T and broader communities.

“Doug sets a very high bar for the Carl Mitchell Award for his immense contributions that have had life-changing benefits for thousands of Canadians,” says Corwin Cambray (MScPl 1999), president of the UTAA. “His lifelong commitment to fighting for human rights, dignity and inclusivity honors the ideals of the award and the legacy of Carl Mitchell.”

Despite his prominent role in making it happen, Elliott still can’t help but marvel at how times have changed. “I was the kid tiptoeing through the halls of Flavelle House, worried that if people knew I was gay, I would never get a job,” he says. “The idea that years later, U of T’s alumni association would pick me to be the first recipient of this award is an immense honour and incredibly touching. It’s important to me, and it’s important to my community.”

Decades of grassroots activism

Doug speaking to a packed lecture hall
Doug addresses a packed lecture hall at the award ceremony.

Alongside his courtroom successes that made national headlines, Elliott’s contributions at the grassroots level have been just as remarkable. Back in 1984, reasoning that the only person he could trust not to fire him for being gay was himself, he hung out his own shingle after articling. It was, however, just as the AIDS epidemic was hitting home, and much of his early work was heart-wrenching, such as attending the deathbeds of young men so they could sign wills and confronting funeral parlours that refused to handle the bodies of people with AIDS. “AIDS came along, and what could be worse? We’re actually dying, and people hate us and are afraid of us,” he recalls of those times.

Elliott has spent decades providing much-needed volunteer services to the AIDS Committee of Toronto and the Canadian AIDS Society, for which he is now a director. He also serves on the board of directors for the LGBT Purge fund and acts as a spokesperson in Canada and abroad to raise morale and awareness around 2SLGBTQI+ rights. As a measure of his continued commitment, he recently made a six-hour drive from his home in Elliot Lake to attend an event for 2SLGBTQI+ veterans at Canadian Forces Base Borden.

UTAA past president Sana Halwani (JD 2004) says Elliott’s talent, passion and commitment exemplify the U of T community and its ability overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles and foster inclusive environments. “Few epitomize these aspirations better than Doug Elliott, and I am delighted to congratulate him as the first-ever recipient of the Carl Mitchell Community Impact Award.”

Along with his Christian faith, Elliott credits his parents for instilling in him the importance of service to others. He is also indebted to his husband, who has been with him since his U of T days. “None of this would have been possible without him.”

One of our most impactful alumni

Doug surrounded by supporters
Left to right: Sana Halwani, Doug Elliott, Faculty of Law Dean Jutta Brunnee, Corwin Cambray and Barbara Dick, Assistant Vice-President, Alumni Relations.

U of T Vice-President, Advancement David Palmer says the university is committed to the advancement of rights and opportunities for equity-deserving people. “Inclusive excellence is a foundational value for U of T, which is beautifully expressed in the Carl Mitchell Community Impact Award and its inaugural recipient, Doug Elliott,” says Palmer. “We are incredibly grateful to recognize him as one of our most respected and impactful alumni. Doug’s remarkable story is an inspiring testament to how far we have come as an institution and society, and a sobering reminder that we still have much to do to protect these hard-won rights.

Elliott offers the same cautionary note as Palmer, pointing out that despite decades of progress, disturbing backlashes in the U.S., Canada, Europe and elsewhere demonstrate that we must remain vigilant in protecting and advancing the hard-won rights of the 2SLGBTQI+ community. “I always remind people that in 1929, the best place in the world to be gay was Berlin, and by 1939, Berlin was the worst place in the world to be gay,” says Elliott. “Things can go backwards.”

“Doug holds a prominent place in the pantheon of U of T alumni who have effected sweeping, transformational change for society,” says Palmer. “We are deeply indebted to him for his outsized contributions and honoured to recognize him as the inaugural Carl Mitchell Community Impact Award recipient.”

Carl Mitchell

Carl Mitchell (BSc 1984 SMC) gave several lifetimes’ worth of contributions to U of T before passing away from cancer at the age of 55.

His many roles include president and treasurer of the U of T Alumni Association (UTAA) and sitting on the Group of 175 – Campaign Leadership, the Governing Council Committee for Honorary Degrees, and the Department of Computer Science Industrial Advisory Board.

He began the UTAA’s Community Engagement Initiative to celebrate the service of U of T volunteers. He was himself honoured with an Arbor Award, U of T’s highest distinction for volunteers.

Building on his success in business and as a pioneer in the computer industry, Carl also became a significant donor to U of T by generously funding a computer lab in the Bahen Centre for Information Technology.

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