Recipient of the Inspirational Leaders Award
March 2020

Dr. Howard Irving


Reflecting on his social work career, Dr. Howard H. Irving states: “I have always felt the desire to advocate for big picture changes for people who systemically are having difficulty with the systems and laws in place.” Howard Irving, PhD, RSW, is a professor emeritus at the University of Toronto, Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work and cross-appointed to the Faculty of Law. He is being recognized by OASW as an Inspirational Leader in 2020 because he exemplifies this year’s Social Work Week theme: “Social Workers: Leading Positive Change Across Systems & Settings”.

Dr. Irving received his formal education at the University of Rhode Island, the University of Connecticut and the University of Toronto, where he obtained a PhD. During his PhD work at the Faculty of Social Work, he taught courses mostly focused on couples and family relationship issues.  Cross-appointed to the Law Faculty, he taught “Children and the Law” and gave seminars on family mediation for the Bar Admission course, the Canadian Bar Association, and Canadian judges. 

Dr. Irving’s early research led him to conclude that approximately half the people who were getting married would be divorced in the future. He says: “This high volume of divorce cases put a very serious strain on the court system.  At that time, the adversarial system, especially as it pertained to family law, had increasingly been called into question. The adversarial approach in family law tended to polarize families and made them unnecessary combatants, interfering with future relationships between the parents and their children. It created a win-lose confrontation.”

During his research into the problem of family law and litigation, Dr. Irving realized that there were no mediation services throughout Canada. He applied for a grant for a family mediation research project and published a study involving 53 family lawyers.  The findings were extremely positive in relation to the benefits of family mediation:  1. Helps avoid unnecessary litigation; 2. Better prepares the parties to understand the issues; 3. Allows the client to use legal services more appropriately; and 4. Reduces the client’s emotional turmoil. 

This research led to Dr. Irving’s first book, Divorce Mediation, The Rational Alternative.  It has been followed by over 90 articles and 5 texts on family mediation, including such topics as parenting agreements, mobility rights and children, the effects of divorce on children and parents, and research studies regarding the evaluation of dispute resolution programs. He has always placed a high level of importance on the overall health of families and on minimizing the negative impact of divorce on children, as does his latest book Children Come First. Mediation, Not Litigation When Marriage Ends. 

In 1984, at the Peoples Law Conference on Family Law, Dr. Irving joined professionals from various disciplines including social work, law, psychology and policymakers who worked together to develop Family Mediation Canada (FMC).  FMC would become a national organization to work to change legislation to help deal with family conflict in a more humane way. As a founding member and first president of FMC, he notes: “In that process, we worked alongside and together with the legal system.  Every province and territory had representation on this committee. I was very fortunate to be able to work with intelligent, highly energetic people who were committed to bringing about change. Soon after these meetings, I submitted a proposal to the Federal Ministry of Justice to help officially develop FMC.”  

Dr. Irving reports that Family Mediation Canada was then awarded a 3-year grant to support a national organization to develop and encourage family dispute resolution as it related to the family justice system. As a result, there are now organized family mediation services and the Divorce Act was changed to give mediation a significant position in family law as a non-adversarial alternative for families going through separation and divorce.  Along with FMC, he was also influential in recommending changes to the Family Law Act, which emphasize the benefits of mediating family disputes, require lawyers to inform clients of the availability of mediation services, and provide access to free educational seminars to give families a clearer understanding of their situation in regards to separation and divorce.  

Having been cross-appointed to the Faculty of Law and being named co-director of the joint law and social work degree program at the University of Toronto enabled Dr. Irving to foster more visibility for social work in family law academics.  He was invited to teach family mediation at the Hong Kong University for a number of years and wrote the book Mediation for Chinese Families, which was translated into Mandarin.  He also taught mediation at Hebrew University in Israel and presented numerous guest lectures on mediation throughout Europe, Asia and North America.  At the University of Toronto, he supervised 10 PhD theses on conflict resolution.  He also developed and taught an accredited certified training program for family mediators both in Canada and in Hong Kong.   

What Dr. Irving learned as a social worker was the value of working closely with members of various professions and using a team approach: “Keeping in mind it takes a village to bring about social change that will benefit everyone, I appreciated working on committees that included social workers, lawyers, judges, psychologists, policymakers and grassroots people who had been through the process.” He adds: “The communication skills that one learns as a social worker were invaluable to me. What also helped me was to be resilient, and focus on research, which would help bring about change through the political system.”  

According to Dr. Irving, social work leaders need the ability to work in a multidisciplinary approach, as well as empathy, resiliency, and courage in order to advocate for social change against overwhelming odds.  

Dr. Irving shares an old Chinese proverb which was told to him by one of his mediation students in Hong Kong: “Do not kill fly on man’s head with axe”.  He explains: “Above all else, sometimes the practice of social work requires lots of common sense and drawing upon the right values and principles to bring about social change.”  
Howard Irving is an inspirational leader in the social work community – focused, collaborative, and courageous. During Social Work Week and throughout the year, take the time to acknowledge social workers who make a difference.