Balfour Der, along with his wife Lisa Burgis, is a part of Der Barristers, a Calgary based law team that specializes in criminal defense. Der has practiced criminal law for over 37 years with ten of those serving within the Crown Prosecutor’s office. During that time, he handled thousands of cases at all levels of court including precedent setting cases at the Supreme Court of Canada. He was also awarded the title of Queen’s Counsel on the 31st of December 2001. This honorary title recognizes a vast array of professional achievements and contributions within the legal community.
His professional background is successful and accomplished. Der himself states that he is defined by his career, “…living and breathing criminal law.” However, what about the story of Balfour Der beyond his practice?
For Der, it was unthinkable that he would be anything but a lawyer. As a little boy of seven he told his father that he wanted to be a criminal lawyer with an iron conviction beyond his years. He had no contingency plan, no second choice, just a single-minded dream.
“I remember sitting on a deep freeze in our cafe, telling my dad I wanted to be a criminal lawyer. It’s all I thought I’d be.”
His parents were not only supportive but saw the value of the pursuit of education. A quality instilled in Der that he has carried throughout his life. Der’s father, Der Ming Fong, was born in Canton in 1898 but his life in China would be short-lived. For at the age of 12 he would travel by himself to Canada. He took on the name Charlie Jim and with it an unyielding determination to stake his claim in the Canadian landscape.
It was a heavy responsibility to come to Canada. Charlie Jim’s parents scrounged together what little they had to pay for the Chinese Head Tax. Charlie Jim wasted little time.
“He was put to work on the railroad. He taught himself English, to read and write, to do mathematics. He took whatever work he could find just to make a living.”
The money he earned would always be split fifty-fifty. Der mentions, “If he made twenty, he kept ten and sent ten home. He sponsored many family members to come to Canada.”
Eventually, he opened a café in Humboldt, Saskatchewan where he met his wife Josie, Der’s mother. Josie was born in Nova Scotia in 1920 but grew up in Saskatchewan. She left school at 13 to support her family and worked odd jobs like carrying pails of water and waitressing at cafés. Together they opened up a café in Watson, Sask. A time Der recalls fondly.
“There was no hired help. My dad cooked and my mum did the serving out front. My brother and I would come home from school and help out as well. It was just the four of us.”
In 1980, Der was admitted to the Alberta Law Society and it remains one of his parent’s proudest moments. The amount of hard work required has not waned, even today, for Der, at age 62. He credits this motivation to a healthy work ethic and a daily routine of fitness. He is a triathlete and golfer, and was involved in coaching minor hockey and lacrosse for 33 combined seasons.
The value of family and community remains at the core of Der’s life. It is not only reflected in his service towards the community. It is clear that Der has come a long way from helping out in his father’s kitchen. Yet, some things, luckily, never change.