Police Chief Matt Torigian will oversee OPP, several other agencies in new job as deputy minister of community safety -
By Liz MONTEIRO
WATERLOO REGION — Every morning when Police Chief Matt Torigian sat at his desk, he would look at a portrait of Abraham Lincoln.
He holds the leader in high regard because the 16th president of the United States persevered and showed leadership throughout his country's Civil War.
Lincoln had vision and was steadfast in his convictions — two attributes that Torigian tried to bring to the job each day as chief of the Waterloo Regional Police Service.
"Whether you are the leader of your family, a community or an organization, your decisions as a leader have an impact," he said.
"(The portrait) is a reminder that you can't get down and you continue to strive for what you believe in," he said.
Next month, Torigian, 53, leaves his job of almost seven years to become Ontario's deputy minister of community safety.
He admits it's a decision he struggled with. He had always planned to retire from the police service.
"It's been an emotional tug-of-war to leave a place you absolutely love," he said.
But after the former deputy minister retired in December, Torigian began hearing rumours that his name was being bandied about for the job.
"I went home to Jill and said you'll never believe what I heard today," Torigian said referring to his wife of 21 years.
So when the phone call came in mid-April, he wasn't completely surprised by the offer.
It's a bureaucratic job that will move him behind the scenes, but also a position of considerable influence. Torigian will help oversee the Ontario Provincial Police, the Chief Coroner's Office, the Ontario Police College, Emergency Management Ontario and the Office of the Fire Marshal.
During his tenure as local chief, the force has grown from a budget of $96.4 million in 2007 to $141 million approved earlier this year, while the numbers of officers went up from 700 to 770.
Torigian oversaw the restructuring of front-line deployment by redesigning patrol zones and has placed a strong emphasis on gathering data to measure the performance of the service.
But he prefers to let others speak of his legacy.
Childhood and family friend Mike Hoogasian said he isn't surprised that Torigian doesn't want to talk about his successes.
"He appreciates what he has. He's humble and doesn't flaunt his success," said Hoogasian, who lives in St. Catharines.
Both men grew up on the same street and their parents, all of Armenian background, were close. Torigian was the best man at Hoogasian's wedding and a godfather to one of his three children.
Both came to Waterloo to attend university — Torigian at Wilfrid Laurier, Hoogasian at Waterloo.
"He is the funniest guy I know. He is a zest-for-life kind of guy," said Hoogasian.
Torigian was born and raised in Ontario's fruit farm country. As a teen, along with being part of the Canadian rowing team throughout high school, he worked on his uncle Hygy's farm in St. Catharines, picking apricots, grapes, cherries and raspberries.
It's this same uncle who introduced him to political ideas, giving him Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels' Communist Manifesto.
"He had a thirst for knowledge and philosophical thoughts," Torigian said. "He allowed me to push the envelope on my thinking."
Torigian enjoyed political theory so much that he went on to study political science at Laurier. He also received a master's in Public Administration from Western University.
Torigian's parents were born in Canada but his paternal grandparents escaped the Armenian Genocide in 1915 when 1.5 million people were murdered by the Ottoman Empire.
His grandfather was about 12 when he hid in a tree and watched as his parents were murdered. He lay in a field pretending to be dead to avoid detection.
He would later come to Canada and settled in Brantford, where many other Armenians lived. Torigian's father was born in Brantford and would study aeronautical engineering in Detroit.
He would go into teaching and retire as a principal. Torigian's sister followed in her father's footsteps and is also a high school principal, while his brother is a family doctor.
Torigian admits his first interest was to pursue a career in law but after graduating university, he applied to be an auxiliary officer with Niagara Regional Police.
At 25, he was hired by Waterloo Regional Police. His first assignment was in Cambridge and he would work in various areas including patrol, drugs, and the emergency response unit where he was a sniper.
On his own time, he dabbled in local community theatre in Elmira and it was there he met Jill. She did his makeup and the pair were soon an item. They now have two children, Tali, 18 and Nick, 20.
In 1999, Torigian became the police service's media relations officer. That job came a year after his media work during a crisis at Cambridge's Parkhill Dam, where Const. Dave Nicholson drowned during efforts to recover the body of 12-year-old Mark Gage from the Grand River.
Torigian later saw promotions to inspector and superintendent. He became deputy chief in 2005.
Torigian attributes his attachment to policing and working with people to his upbringing, where being part of the community was paramount.
"The feeling you get when you help a total stranger who is relying on you and he or she says thank you. That feeling comes naturally and it's an experience that makes it all worthwhile," he said.
Torigian said he often remembers his uncle saying to him, 'always believe someone is smarter than you.'
As police chief, those words reminded him it was important to have a competent team. "You don't need all the answers," Torigian said.
Torigian said he will remember that sound advice as he goes to Toronto to work with the heads of the OPP, fire chiefs' association and the coroner's office. He's been reading briefing reports the last couple of weeks to get up to speed with the organizations he will represent.
"It's a huge learning curve. I would be lying if I didn't say there is some apprehension. But it's the same feeling I had when I became chief or any new job I had," he said.
Torigian said he and Jill plan to rent a place in Toronto for now. But he hopes to return to Waterloo Region and retire here.
"We don't want to lose our roots here. We love it here," he said. "I want to come back and give back to the community and serve the community in some way."