Giving back to community a labour of love for employment lawyer Patrick Twagirayezu

Patrick Twagirayezu
Patrick Twagirayezu is a lawyer at boutique Ottawa employment law firm Emond Harnden. Photo by Caroline Phillips
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Sometimes, it takes something so simple as positive feedback from a teacher, coach or mentor to change the way a child sees themself – or their future.

For Patrick Twagirayezu, it was being told “You’d make a good lawyer” by one of his teachers at his French Catholic high school, Franco-Cité. She was addressing him and his buddies after they delivered a persuasive presentation to their class.

The Grade 8 teacher’s encouraging words sowed the seeds for Twagirayezu’s future as a lawyer.

“From that point on, I thought it might be a possibility, something that I could maybe do,” said Twagirayezu, 26, at the Ottawa office of Emond Harnden, where he’s a new associate at one of the largest boutique-style labour and employment law firms in the country. “I’ve been lucky to have people around me who have always steered me in the right direction even when I didn’t necessarily know what the right direction was.”

Twagirayezu has a résumé that’s hard to match. He’s won awards and scholarships, and started charitable movements. He helped to organize a roundtable discussion on youth engagement at Rideau Hall, hosted by then-governor general David Johnston.

As well, the proud Franco-Ontarian represented French-language students and student trustees from school boards across the province. Twagirayezu also founded the Capital Youth Initiative aimed at reducing youth poverty in Ottawa and is currently a World Economic Forum Global Shaper.

"For me, the only two things I want to do are: continue improving as a lawyer and keep giving back to the community."

“For me, the only two things I want to do are: continue improving as a lawyer and keep giving back to the community,” he said.

Twagirayezu moved to Canada as a little boy with his mother and younger sister. He spent his first couple of years in Winnipeg, enrolled in a French school. He had to learn the language from scratch while picking up his English from outside the classroom. 

Twagirayezu jokes that Winnipeg’s extreme cold gave his family enough reason to leave but, really, they relocated to Ottawa due to its vibrant and strong francophone community.

In high school, Twagirayezu was a well-rounded student who studied hard, played quarterback on his football team, and was head of his student council. He lived in Ottawa Community Housing, in the Heron Gate area, before moving to the Hunt Club area. His mother worked as a personal support worker while Twagirayezu held down multiple part-time jobs during high school and university. To boot, he helped kids in social housing to improve their French, after school.

Twagirayezu’s interest in volunteer work started during a trip back to Rwanda to see relatives. He couldn’t help but do a quality of life comparison, realizing he was fortunate to grow up in Canada. 

New mission 

When Twagirayezu returned to Ottawa, he started on his new mission to give back to his community. He wasted no time contacting the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario Foundation to see how he could help. He and his friends planned a benefit concert for CHEO through C.H.A.N.G.E. 4 Kids, a fundraising movement co-founded and led by Twagirayezu.

“I didn’t think we were going to pull it off,” said Twagirayezu, recalling how they initially had no money for the deposit on their venue, the Bronson Centre.

They hastily canvassed neighbourhoods asking for contributions, and were baffled when donors started asking for tax receipts in return. “We learned everything on the fly.”

In the end, the concert was a fundraising success and was held again the following year, in support of CHEO and Do It For Daron (DIFD).

“Because we were the organizers, we had to be on top of everything,” Twagirayezu says in explaining how C.H.A.N.G.E. 4 Kids taught him to take ownership of his fundraising efforts and future leadership roles.

Twagirayezu went on to earn a combined law and political science degree at the University of Ottawa, graduating magna cum laude. He had part-time and summer jobs at Emond Harnden, where he also articled.

'I love what I do'

“I love what I do and I love the people I work with,” said Twagirayezu, who credits his school board student trustee experience with sparking his interest in labour and employment law, and in finding practical solutions for solving disputes.

Emond Harnden was named the 2020 Outstanding Small Business Philanthropist by the Ottawa chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals. In 2014, Twagirayezu won in the youth category after being nominated by United Way. He was part of this year’s selection committee but refrained from voting in the small business category.

“I was extremely proud,” he said of Emond Harnden’s award. “To me, it reinforced one of the main reasons I came here, which was that this is a place that cares about its community.” 

Five things to know about Patrick Twagirayezu

1. His surname gets mispronounced all the time. He’s often called “Mr. T” for short.

2. He’s naturally curious. “I’ve never been afraid to approach people to ask questions.”

3. In 2013, he won the Prix Bernard Gradmaître “youth of the year” award, given to an outstanding young leader in the Ottawa francophone community.

4. He saved up money for university through part-time jobs, such as working as a dishwasher at the RA Centre. 

5. Remember his Grade 8 buddies? Phedely Ariste also studied law at uOttawa with Twagirayezu and is an associate at Gowling WLG, while Bryan Detchou earned a political science degree at uOttawa, followed by a master’s degree in international relations, and is a special adviser in the Senate of Canada.