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Forever Young: the ongoing story of an outspoken advocate for education

Talking to John Young about teaching, hanging with headhunters and the days when the education ministry was after his ass
John Young 5
Former school board trustee John Young in his Victoria apartment.

In a downtown café, a slight man with white hair swept across the shoulders of his suit jacket, scans through the B.C. School Act in front of him. He quotes inspirational French phrases about choosing laughter to keep from crying. Between sips from his coffee, jokes and a constant grin, he drops very few hints at the kind of legacy he has created.

To say that longtime school trustee John Young has led a full life is an understatement. It suggests that the one-time principal, businessman, Second World War bombardier, advisor to former headhunters in Borneo and social justice advocate is done living. At 90, Young is gearing up for his next fight by taking court action against every school board in Canada.

Making a name as the no-fee trustee

Five years after Young won a province wide ruling that said no district in B.C. may charge student fees of any kind – from instrument rentals to supply costs – Young is back at it again.

“I took the position that you cannot deny a child an education on that kind of basis,” Young says about taking to task the Greater Victoria board of education for breaking the School Act in 1997. Then, in 2006, he won a B.C. Supreme Court ruling that applied to all districts in the province.

His critics say despite the legislation, without the fees, programs such as music will never survive. But Young, concerned for the poor children in public schools, has always maintained that fees limit access and create an uneven playing field.

“What does free of charge mean?” he says, School Act in hand. “Even the most uneducated person can understand: free of charge means free of charge.”

On Nov. 19, Young lost his seat on the Greater Victoria board of education after 20 years. He still managed 10,685 votes, despite a campaign on which he’s proud to say he spent zero dollars. (In 2008, he garnered 13,048 votes, perhaps in part due to the $2 he spent on photocopying a campaign flier.)

Yet he isn’t afraid to put cash behind his cause. He estimates he has spent $50,000 in legal fees to uphold the Act. It’s a cost he’s able to afford, he says with a smile, by choosing to order egg sandwiches instead of chateaubriand steaks.

“I’ve always been reluctant to launch (another) action against my own school board of which I am a member. Now I don’t have to worry about that because I’m no longer a member. I’m just a parent. I’m just a citizen.”

The family man and romantic lead

Young, the oldest of a dozen children of Micmac heritage, was raised in New Brunswick during the Depression and lost his mother at age 12. By 18, he had left home to become a bombardier in the Royal Canadian Air Force. There, he spent four years patrolling the west coast of Vancouver Island in search of Japanese submarines before beginning his academic pursuits at the University of British Columbia that he would continue later at the University of Paris.

Despite a distinguished career built on two degrees and a post-grad diploma from Sorbonne, he never forgot what it was like to be an adolescent driven to steal from the butcher shop to feed his siblings.

He remains a man open about growing up in poverty – likely the key motivation behind his life’s work, says his daughter Joan Young, a Vancouver-based lawyer.

“When he was growing up, things weren’t necessarily available to everybody in the same way,” says the 49-year-old, one of his three children. “He’s got a deep, deep commitment to social justice and he sees those two ends being met through education. It’s very empowering to be educated.

“He was a great dad. Both he and my mom always made me feel like I could do anything I wanted to – I think that’s the thing he instilled the most strongly, and the value of education,” she says.

Much of Young’s life has centred around international education. It’s how he met and married his ex-wife, Dale Young, a 77-year-old journalist who resides in Victoria.

In 1958, she was a copy editor for Weekend Magazine, a defunct national weekly news publication when she sent a reporter to interview John Young, the first educator sent overseas under the Colombo Plan for Co-operative Economic and Social Development in Asia and the Pacific.

“The culminating point of the article was that John was sort of regretting in a way that he hadn’t married and he was lonely out there,” Dale Young says. “Someone in the office dared me to write to him, so I did.”

After several months of correspondence, she flew to Singapore to meet him. They were married 10 days later.

“We decided we liked each other and I was there, so we got married,” she says, adding that her father was deputy minister of trade and commerce at the time and she already knew everything she needed to know about her prospective mate.

The couple spent a year and a half in Borneo – trekking through the jungle and, equipped with only basic first aid training, performing surgical procedures and delivering babies. John Young worked to improve local schools whose leaders included former headhunters. The couple had three children, one adopted, and divorced amicably in 1977.

The radical, blacklisted from education in B.C.

“The principal who wouldn’t fail students.”

It’s a title Young is proud to have earned at Carihi secondary school in Campbell River from 1965 until 1972 – the year he was ousted for what was then considered radical leadership. From developing a “responsibility plan,” which allowed top students to chose whether or not to attend class, to replacing the letter grade “F” with an “incomplete” mark on report cards, he created controversy.

“I refused to tell a child that they were a failure,” he says. “My question was: they failed what? Somebody would have to be pretty brave to answer that question.”

His termination, he says, was made official in the summer of ’72 for hiring an inadequately certified aboriginal teacher to be a mentor to aboriginal students. In September that year, 200 people arrived at the school to protest Young’s firing. Two students were arrested.

“I just remember him being very progressive about issues, things that aren’t even questioned now,” Joan Young says. “Everything from the girls didn’t have to wear skirts in school, to the boys could have a moustache if they wanted.”

“It was quite an upheaval all around,” Young’s ex-wife recalls. “It wasn’t a matter of someone being fired quietly and leaving.”

Following his run at Carihi, Young was unable to land a local job in education, due to “outrageous discrimination,” he says.

“The B.C. education system was failing children and the Ministry of Education was after my ass because I challenged the minister of education publicly,” he says. “I achieved that kind of a reputation of being kind of a rebel… Many teachers are delighted to fail kids to smarten them up. Most kids who are told they are failures give up and leave.”

As a result, Young’s career in schools took a detour and he opened two Cal-Van Auto Supply stores based in Vancouver and Nanaimo.

The eternal humanitarian and advocate for those in need

When Young heard the Nov. 19 trustee election results, his initial reaction was one of concern for all the people who have come to rely on the charity he had provided with his annual $17,424 trustee salary.

“He used to give away that money,” says Greater Victoria school district superintendent John Gaiptman, who watched the results come in with Young at the board office. “The bulk of it went to soup kitchens or people who needed his support. Immediately, he thought ‘Oh my, I’m not going to be able to give them what they expect.’ That money was being used to feed the hungry.”

During Young’s last board meeting on Nov. 28, Gaiptman broke an agreement he made with Young. In an emotional goodbye, Gaiptman exposed his friend’s charity despite Young asking to have it kept anonymous.

Every Christmas, for as long as Gaiptman has been at the board office, Young has given at least $500 dollars – sometimes $1,000 – to be distributed among the most needy students in the district to help them buy a gift for their parents.

“John knew what it was like to walk to school hungry,” Gaiptman says. “He made a commitment early on in life that if he ever had the opportunity to change that he would, and I don’t think he ever let up on his opportunity. There has never been a person more consistent to their philosophies.”

While Gaiptman says the two didn’t always agree on matters, Young never took offence and always maintained a high regard for the democratic process. He is someone, Gaiptman says, who would rather give to someone undeserving of charity than risk having anyone in need go without.

Legacy likely to continue as long as Young lives

People close to Young say that his age hasn’t affected his abilities, but he admits it might have overshadowed his accomplishments during the last campaign.

“People say ‘Holy smokes! He’s 90? What’s he doing on school board?’” he says.

Peg Orcherton, chair of the Greater Victoria board of education, believes his full background is often overlooked.

“People have seen John as the no-fee trustee and haven’t taken the time to know him like I, and some of the other trustees, have,” says Orcherton, who sat next to him for years at the board table. “He’s a very humble man.”

From no-fee trustee to renegade principal, Young accepts the reputation he has etched out for himself.

“Everywhere I go, people recognize me,” he says. “It’s partly because of my big mop of hair.”

Evidence that John Young’s karma bank is full

John Young’s daughter Joan recalls one story of what she calls strange karma in her father’s life. About five years ago, John Young tripped over a skateboard in the crosswalk at Douglas and Fort streets. He had broken bones and was taken to hospital. In the time before the ambulance arrived, a teen recognized him and waited at his side until help arrived. When Joan Young returned her father home, there was a message of concern from a woman unknown to their family on his answering machine. The woman was the teen’s mother and a member of a new immigrant family John Young had been supporting.

“He was buying groceries for the family because they didn’t have money and their welfare hadn’t started yet,” she says.