Canada's Stories

‘I went through an open door when the opportunity was there’

Jack Boan was a pilot, teacher, bureaucrat, refugee sponsor and barbershop singer

In August 1940, 22-year-old Jack Boan enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force, intent on becoming a pilot. “Through a quirk of fate, I was sent to instruct at the wireless school in the flying squadron,” he says. He did such a good job teaching that, when he handed in his application to actually fly the jets, his superiors threw it in the trash. “I felt a little guilty that I wasn’t going overseas where the action was,” he says, but they wanted him to keep instructing. And thus a career was born: in the 76 years since, Jack has taught in universities across the world, from the Prairies to Scotland to New Zealand.

    Originally from Briercrest, Sask., Jack studied history and political economy at the University of Saskatchewan after the war. There he met his wife, Jean, with whom he’d have three children. His first job out of university was with an agency set up to rehabilitate the Depression- and drought-plagued Prairies. After earning his doctorate in agricultural economics from Ohio State University, he kept studying water, this time in the South Saskatchewan River Basin.

    While working for the government in Ottawa in the 1960s, Jack was seconded to the royal commission on health services, a group tasked with reporting on the future of health care in Canada. In 1964, the commission recommended universal coverage; two years later, the Medical Care Act was passed, ensuring publicly funded health care for all Canadians—a point of pride ever since.

    FROM THE ARCHIVES: Maclean’s reports on “One doctor’s lonely, costly battle for medicare.” (Sept. 18, 1965)

    Jack doesn’t linger on accomplishments, though. He catalogues them without pomp or circumstance: the organization he founded, the Canadian Health Economics Research Association; the work on crime and prison reform with the John Howard Society; the refugee support. While teaching at the University of Regina—his home base for many years—Jack spearheaded an effort to sponsor Vietnamese students displaced by the war. “We’ve had about 60 students go through our system on account of that,” he says. “It’s been a tremendous success.”

    Through it all, Jack was, above all, a teacher. Known for helping to draft the Regina Beach Manifesto—a 1963 document that drove the direction of the University of Regina’s liberal arts programs—and the bow tie unfailingly fastened around his neck, he was a presence at the school long after his 1983 retirement; he taught his last class in 1999.

    Jack’s life wasn’t all work, though. For 50 years, he was a regular in barbershop quartets across the country, including Regina’s Four Horsemen, so named for the apocalyptic talk preceding Y2K. The Presbyterian Church also tapped Jack to lead church services dating as far back as the 1950s. “My life didn’t have an objective,” he says, looking back on the many facets of his career. “I just went through an open door when the opportunity was there.” — Luc Rinaldi

    (Portrait by Derek Mortensen)

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