Convocation speaker Jeff Yurek’s varied career has always focused on serving the community

Jeff Yurek (9T5), a community pharmacist and former MPP, did not start his pharmacy profession with the goal of later entering politics. But he says they have a key similarity that sparked his interest in both fields.

“Focusing on people and listening to their needs is the key in anything I’ve ever done,” says Yurek, the speaker at the December 5 convocation celebration for 2020 and 2021 graduates from U of T’s Leslie Dan Faculty of Pharmacy and Munk School of Public Affairs. “Whether it be at the pharmacy, with a service club or community group or in politics, the majority of figuring out a solution is really listening to and hearing what the other person is saying.”

Yurek has been involved with the pharmacy profession since he was a child. His father, Ed, graduated from the U of T’s Faculty of Pharmacy in 1952 and opened a community pharmacy in St. Thomas, Ontario, near London. As a boy, Yurek would spend Sundays in the store helping his father. He would watch his father help patients, and the experience stuck with him.

After high school, Yurek started the pharmacy program at U of T. Two of his siblings, Peter and Diane, had previously graduated from the U of T’s Faculty of Pharmacy in 1983 and 1988, respectively. Yurek graduated in 1995 and moved back to St. Thomas to take over the family pharmacy with Peter, where he enjoyed serving the community and taking care of the patients who came through the doors.

He gradually became more involved in the St. Thomas community, taking on leadership roles with the Rotary Club and Chamber of Commerce. Then, with his drive to help the community and a desire to make positive change, he decided to enter politics.

In 2011, he was first elected as a Member of Provincial Parliament (MPP) for the Elgin-Middlesex-London riding, representing the Progressive Conservative Party. During his 11 years as MPP, he held various roles, including Minister of Natural Resources and Forestry, Minister of Transportation, and Minister of Environment, Conservation and Parks.

“One of the things I really enjoyed about my pharmacy education was the value that was placed on self-learning,” says Yurek. “This was a valuable skill not only in my pharmacy career, but also in politics, where I often had to learn about new policies quickly.”

Yurek’s health care roots were always close at hand. He served as the health critic while the PCs were in opposition. And in 2021, as COVID-19 vaccines started to become available, Yurek delivered vaccinations at weekend clinics in his riding, even though he was a busy cabinet minister at the time.

Passing “Ryan’s Law”

But of all his accomplishments in politics, Yurek says that one of his proudest moments in his career was the passing of a private member’s bill he introduced called “Ryan’s Law.” In 2012, a 12-year-old boy near London died at school from an asthma attack when his medication was locked in the principal’s office and not accessible when he needed it.

Yurek worked with the family and the Asthma Society to put forward the bill that would allow kids, with their parents’ consent, to keep their medications on them instead of in the office. The bill also included that schools should have an asthma action plan.

While private member’s bills, especially from opposition parties, often fail, Yurek worked hard to get MPPs from other parties on side, and the bill ultimately passed in 2015.

“Because of my health background, I understood asthma and the importance of relief inhalers when you’re having an attack,” says Yurek. “Having this bill pass was the most satisfying and rewarding moment of my political career. It had been driven from the community level, and we were able to push it through the legislature to become law.”

Yurek retired from politics in early 2022 and has returned to working at the family pharmacy. After more than a decade away from regular pharmacy work, he has been enjoying his return to practice and serving the community in a different way from politics. He advises new graduates that they can also have an impactful career in whatever field they choose.

“You can accomplish anything you put your mind to,” he says. “You have a great education from the Leslie Dan Faculty of Pharmacy, and the world is open for you to do what you want to do.”

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