From the no-fee trustee to the renegade principal, John Young embraced the reputation he etched out for himself.
Young, the province’s most dogged defender of universal access to education, died Wednesday at 92 in hospital.
The one-time principal, businessman, Second World War bombardier and advisor to former headhunters in Borneo spent a lifetime advancing legal arguments that were ultimately successful in banning fees for B.C. public school course materials in 2006.
“I took the position that you cannot deny a child an education on that kind of basis,” Young said in a 2011 interview with The News.
Remarkably, Young sat as a Greater Victoria school trustee for nearly 20 years, retiring in 2011 at 90 years old. Even then, he continued to mount a legal challenge against every school board in Canada to ensure fees were explicitly outlawed in public primary and secondary schools.
Young, the oldest of a dozen children of Micmac heritage, was raised in New Brunswick during the Great Depression.
By 18, he had left home to become a bombardier in the Royal Canadian Air Force, and spent four years patrolling the west coast of Vancouver Island in search of Japanese submarines. He then studied at the University of British Columbia, and later at the University of Paris, earning two degrees and a post-grad diploma from Sorbonne.
Young proudly earned the title, “The principal who wouldn’t fail students,” at Carihi secondary school in Campbell River. As principal from 1965 to 1972, he was ousted for what many people at the time 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,” Young said. “My question was: they failed what? Somebody would have to be pretty brave to answer that question.”
His termination, he said, was made official in the summer of ’72 after he hired 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.
“When he was growing up, things weren’t necessarily available to everybody in the same way,” Joan Young, one of Young’s three children, told The News in 2011. “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. … I think that’s the thing he instilled the most strongly, the value of education.”
John Gaiptman, Greater Victoria school district superintendent, said Young would gift between $500 to $1,000 – whatever he could afford – to the school district every Christmas. The money would be given to the most needy students to help purchase a Christmas gift for their parents.
“John knew what it was like to walk to school hungry,” Gaiptman said at the time. “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.”
-with files from Natalie North