“When I got to UHN, I realized this place matters. That’s why I stayed,” says Gillian Howard, who is retiring on March 31 after more than 20 years as UHN’s Vice President of Public Affairs & Communications. (Photo: UHN)
Gillian Howard loves a good story.
Little wonder. There’s a richness of content across her career path – teaching young men in jail, hanging out on the backstretch at Ontario racetracks, stints at a movie company, a university and hospitals.
And, there’s the enduring influence of her late partner – broadcaster Peter Gzowski – who was widely known as “Mr. Canada” and considered one of the best storytellers the country has ever produced.
“The role of communications is critical to any organization because it’s how people feel an attachment to you,” says Gill, as everyone knows her, UHN’s Vice President of Public Affairs & Communications.
“And I’ve always believed telling good stories is central to good communications.”
On Friday, March 31, Gill will retire, closing the chapter on more than 20 years at UHN.
“Gill is someone who everyone turns to, in good and bad times, for help and advice,” says Dr. Kevin Smith, the sixth President & CEO she has worked with at UHN, and someone who has known Gill since both were working in Hamilton, her at McMaster University, him at St. Joseph’s Health System.
“Gill was certainly part of why I came here,” Kevin says. “She has a great moral compass and a great read on how this organization will react to things we’re thinking of doing, or not doing.
“And, Gill has always taken the work very seriously but she doesn’t take herself exceedingly so, which is refreshing and lovely.”
Gill has not always been at UHN. It just feels that way given her depth of knowledge of the organization and the Ontario health care system.
Toronto born and raised, Gill completed her bachelor’s degree in English at York University before embarking on a career in teaching. She studied at the University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE), then spent two years at the head of the class with Grade 4 and 5 students.
“I hated it,” she says of her abbreviated stint in the classroom, though memories of her OISE practicum – teaching adult, male first-time offenders in jail – remain vivid to this day.
“It was certainly an experience,” she says with a laugh.
A return to academics followed, this time to complete a journalism degree at then-Ryerson Polytechnic Institute, launching her into the communications career where she has left an indelible mark.
A competitive equestrian as a child, Gill grew up around horses, so a job doing publicity for the Ontario Jockey Club was a perfect fit. She moved with the seasons between Woodbine, Greenwood and Fort Erie racetracks, splitting her days between the backstretch, where she gathered intelligence about the horses, and the pressroom, where she dealt with irascible newspaper reporters.
It proved invaluable training for Gill’s future dealing with the media – and hospital CEOs.
“You can’t win in a battle against a 1200-pound horse,” she says. “You have to persuade them to go your way.”
A five-year stint heading communications at Famous Players followed – “it was mostly about building theatres and selling popcorn” – before Gill’s first foray into health care, at Princess Margaret Hospital (PMH), where she was central to the move from Sherbourne St. to University Ave. and the integration with The Toronto Hospital, the predecessor of UHN.
After four years at McMaster, Gill returned to Toronto and health care, heading communications at St. Michael’s Hospital for a year before Tom Closson, UHN’s President & CEO, recruited her to UHN.
“The paramount qualities that I saw in Gill, and experienced after I hired her, were her calmness and judgement,” says Tom, President & CEO at UHN from 2000 to 2005.
“Nobody that I can name has contributed more to UHN being viewed as the top academic health care organization in Canada during the past 20 years. I value the time I worked with and learned from Gill.
“She has made UHN a better place for staff and patients.”
Gill’s first impression of UHN was one awe and inspiration. It has never wavered.
“When I got to UHN, I realized this place matters,” she says. “That’s why I stayed.”
Gill arrived at UHN in September 2002, less than a year after Peter Gzowski died. They met at the racetrack 20 years earlier when he was researching An Unbroken Line, a book about the history of the Queen’s Plate horse race.
Peter’s impact on Gill’s life was profound. The front row seat to his work deepened her understanding of the media and politics in Canada, and strengthened her love of the country as each summer they travelled to Peter Gzowski Invitational golf tournaments raising money for local literacy organizations.
“All those years I watched one of the best in the business, and that’s a huge part of my learning about communications and understanding the media,” Gill says of her life with Peter.
Sheila O’Brien, a friend and travel companion of Gill’s for nearly 40 years – “we’re like sisters” – calls Gill “Peter’s muse and soulmate,” noting she was a sounding board for ideas, de facto editor and confidante.
“The role in Gill’s life that has been most significant to her is as an éminence grise, and that’s how she always was with Peter,” says Sheila, UHN’s Executive Vice President of People, Culture and Community, who along with her late husband, Kevin Peterson, a journalist and former publisher of the Calgary Herald newspaper, travelled frequently with the couple.
“It’s how she rolls. She’s always prided herself on being behind the scenes, helping to make everybody else look better.”
It’s been the hallmark of Gill’s career at UHN. It’s evidenced by much more than what people say about her. It’s also in the parade of leaders and others from across the organization who have regularly phoned or visited her office at Toronto General Hospital to chat, test drive ideas and seek counsel.
“There was rarely a day in the nine years I was CEO that I didn’t have a conversation with Gill, either in a quick phone call or a wander down the hall,” says Dr. Bob Bell, who was in the role from 2005 to 2014.
“Probably the biggest contribution that Gill has made to UHN and Canadian health care over her years as a leader is simply her passion for the cause and her grace in representing it.”
Dr. Chris Paige, who for close to two decades was UHN’s Vice President of Research and later Executive Vice President of Science and Research, remembers that in the frequent conversations about work he had with Gill she was “always easy to talk to, a great listener, but also had views and perspectives.”
Good friends, Gill has travelled extensively with Chris and his wife, Colleen Paige, as well as the Hudsons – Dr. Alan and his wife, Susan – including on safaris together to Africa and many sailing adventures.
Chris recalls on more than one occasion on those trips mixing work with pleasure to discuss with Gill issues at UHN requiring their attention.
“She’s a consummate professional who has had a lot of good life experiences, so she has wisdom,” Chris says. “That’s the kind of person you want to learn from.”
Gill’s influence and impact extends well beyond UHN. Members of the media routinely call to better understand issues and bounce around story ideas. Political staff are comfortable engaging in background conversations, knowing their confidentiality will not be breached.
And, for years among her senior communications colleagues at the Toronto Academic Health Science Network (TAHSN) hospitals, Gill has been a trusted and steady voice around the table.
“As the ‘Dean’ of the TAHSN VP Communications group, Gill has been the source of wisdom, reason and practicality for hospital communications leaders around the GTA for decades,” says Jeff Mainland, Executive Vice President, Strategy, Quality, Performance and Communications at SickKids.
“Her knowledge, experience and quick wit will be greatly missed, and we wish her well as she ‘sails’ into a well-deserved retirement.”
Gill’s arrival at UHN came a few months before severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) emerged, with Toronto’s hospitals its epicentre. She leaves just after the marking of the third anniversary of COVID-19 being declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization.
Having those two public health crises bookend her time at UHN underscores her professionalism, collaborative nature, dedication, boundless energy and innate calmness.
“She doesn’t panic,” says Dr. Mary Gospodarowicz, Medical Director of Princess Margaret Cancer Centre for more than 15 years until 2020. “She was always the voice of reason, somebody who didn’t accept hyperbole, and she always knew it wasn’t about us, it was about the patients we serve.”
Longtime UHN Public Affairs colleague Jane Finlayson quips that Gill was born with “the unflappable gene” given her ability to remain calm, stay on top of every issue and anticipate what’s coming next.
“We had a mantra – WWGD – “What would Gill do?” says Jane, who retired from UHN in 2019, after 15 years at the Princess Margaret. “It was my guiding light and I used it at every opportunity, especially on those hair-on-fire days – sit back, catch my breath and think: what would Gill do?”
Gill, the eldest of four children of Nancy and Jake Howard, attributes her calm demeanour to her late father, a litigator whose clients over the years included the Toronto Star.
“My father was very calm about everything,” Gill says. “When he saw a problem, he knew it was a problem, but he was always more focused on what we could do to solve it.
“That’s what I grew up with.”
During her time at UHN, Gill has prided herself on a summer internship program within PAC, which over the years gave many young people their start in hospital communications and often led to full-time jobs at UHN.
“This is an education organization, so everybody here should be trying to teach, or at least provide the opportunity for people to learn,” she says of the paid internship, which is geared to graduates. “There’s so much to be learned here, and even if we can’t keep them, we can at least educate them.
“A year at UHN is like a dog year – it’s like seven years.”
Ana Gajic is one of many communications professionals who started as an intern under Gill, got hired to a full-time position, eventually leaving UHN for a more senior opportunity within the health care sector.
“Gill has a way of making people who are just starting out in communications feel that their voice is important and matters,” says Ana, Manager of Corporate Communications at Unity Health Toronto, who joined the UHN internship program in 2014 immediately after graduating in journalism from Carleton University. “We were always at the table and she trusted us to try new things.
“You end up growing so much so quickly because you have a VP, who is recognized across Toronto as a leader in communications, trusting you from very early on in your career.”
Gill has always extended that trust across her entire PAC team. She encourages ideas and innovation, believing that in a place where so many life-and-death decisions are made on a daily basis, trying a new storytelling format, video editing style or social media platform is not one of them.
More travel in her future
Gill is not a micro-manager. But she is willing to get involved when required or asked, and, has the back of those on her team. In turn, they have always been quick over the years to drop whatever they are doing to pitch in to deal with an issue or make sure a news conference about a world-first discovery or a last-minute visit by the Premier, Health Minister, Prime Minister or some other dignitary goes off without a hitch and reflects well on UHN.
“Gill has always appreciated and valued people who think outside the box, write well, approach issues thoughtfully and bring new ideas to the table,” says Alexandra Radkewycz, who retired in 2021 after working for about 20 years with Gill at the original PMH and then when both returned to UHN Public Affairs. “She’s not afraid of that, which is what makes it such a pleasure to work with her and her team.
“She was never afraid to let us go free and innovate, to the envy of many hospital communicators in Toronto.”
Gill, who turns 71 next month, says “you can’t work forever,” so she will leave UHN, fittingly for someone who has spent so much time on hospital budgets, on the final day of the fiscal year.
“I love to travel and I want to do that while I’m still healthy and able,” says Gill, whose office wall is festooned with framed photos from her many trips over the years.
“I’ll miss the people,” she answers quickly, when asked about the biggest adjustment. “And, the daily intellectual challenge that comes with this place.”
But there’s no shortage of things that will keep Gill busy – from getting fitter and exploring different places in the city to eventually taking an art history course, and planning and taking more trips.
“Having the time to do things I haven’t had time to do is appealing,” she says.