For five years, thirty-one year old Ryan Tonkin has been volunteering at Together Against Poverty Society (TAPS).
“It’s the only face-to-face legal advocacy service that we have on the Island, and [it’s] helping thousands of people every single year, with everything from tenancy, to income assistance and so on, and things that are desperately, desperately needed,” Tonkin said.
Kelly Newhook, the executive Director at TAPS, says that Tonkin is currently on the board of directors at TAPS and they are really priviliged to have him.
Tonkin also volunteers at Rock Bay Landing emergency shelter, at food banks, and with Victoria Hospice on the palliative care unit. He gives back, because of what he’s been through.
“When I was fourteen, I left home,” Tonkin said.
“I went through foster care, I lived in group homes around the city, and had nowhere at all to live at times.”
But fate was kind to Tonkin.
“There were people in the community that stepped up and helped me out, gave me a place to stay, eventually gave me the stability I needed to go back to school, and so that’s when I started at Camosun,” Tonkin said.
After studying at Camosun College, he transferred to the University of Victoria and graduated in 2010 with a Bachelor of Arts in philosophy. He also had a mentor, a professor who saw Tonkin’s huge potential, and believed in him.
“Everything he does is remarkable from an academic point of view,” says University of Victoria professor of philosophy and law Colin MacLeod. “But it’s also complemented by this really profound sense of compassion and care for others.”
With his professor’s encouragement, Tonkin applied for and received a scholarship to Harvard Law School.
“I’m constantly just blown away by the kinds of opportunities that have made themselves available to me, and I just struggle to try to live up to them.”
Tonkin is now back in Victoria, and back studying at UVic, as a recipient of the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation Scholar.
He is researching his doctorate on justice, in the context of taxation and income equality.
“It really speaks to Ryan’s interest in what justice is, not just in theory, but also in practice,” says MacLeod.
Newhook, from TAPS, praises Tonkin’s work ethic, and his humility.
“I do remember getting his resume, and seeing that he was in Harvard Law School, which was pretty impressive,” Newhook said.
But what’s remarkable in Tonkin, she says, is looking at his early struggles, and seeing his ability to have really worked through it, excel and provide support to other people in need.
“And that’s just always been so inspirational and impressive to me, Tonkin said. “And something that I’m really glad about, for our organisation, that Ryan has stayed involved.”
Tonkin is humbled by all the attention and believes his focus and his drive are because of the support that got him through his early years and changed the trajectory of his life.
“In my own work, I’ve seen how people can be radically transformed by getting housing, getting nutrition, getting education,” Tonkin said.”
“Getting these basic things, they can start to say, ‘what does a good life look like on my own terms?’ ‘How can I make choices to live the kind of life I want to live?’
And that’s what keeps Tonkin driven to help the less fortunate. He is simply helping people believe in themselves because people believed in him.