Born in Edmonton in 1935, the Honourable Allan H. Wachowich spent his early childhood in Opal, a village 60 kilometres northeast of the capital. He is one of the eight children born to Phillip and Nancy Wachowich. The Wachowich grandparents immigrated to Alberta in 1897, one of the first five Polish families to do so. They were led to Canada by a wish to ensure a good education for their descendants.
Although he is often referred to as the “Polish Prince,” Allan comes from a family with humble origins. His foundational years in Opal, growing up around his parents’ business, taught him the value of community and the importance of hard work. When he was eight years old, his family chose to expand their opportunities with a move to Edmonton. Allan’s activities and interests flourished as a result. He gave fuller expression to his Polish origins and his Catholic faith. He attended St. Joseph’s High School, where he excelled in both academics and sports. After graduation, he followed the example of his older brother Ed and enrolled at the University of Alberta. From the earliest days, his peers recognized his qualities; they led, pushed or elected him into various leadership positions such as president of his graduating class and his fraternity, Zeta Psi.
Allan was active in all team sports, including baseball, hockey and basketball. His earliest jobs were sports-related. He sold hot dogs and peanuts at Edmonton’s Renfrew Park, and served as bat boy for the Edmonton Eskimos baseball team. At the university, he spent two years as captain of the Bearcats basketball team, the farm team to the university’s Golden Bears.
Allan’s dedication to his Catholic faith almost led him to enter the priesthood, but athletics initially won out. He decided to pursue a physical education degree, until his older brother Ed convinced him otherwise. Ed was in his last year of law school when he successfully urged Allan to join him on that career path. Allan obtained his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1957 and his Bachelor of Law degree in 1958. The selling feature of law was that it was a profession through which he could make a positive impact on society. Once enrolled, Allan quickly discovered a knack and a passion for law. He was admitted to the bar in 1959.
Allan practiced law with his brother’s firm Kosowan & Wachowich. His time as a practicing lawyer was in some ways the most rewarding phase of his career, with many opportunities to assist people in difficult situations. His will to help others went beyond mere business, as he spent significant time and energy taking on pro bono cases representing those unable to afford legal assistance.
By 1974, Allan was a seasoned and well-respected lawyer and leader within his profession. The government of the day had adopted the theme of striving for a “just society.” That year he was appointed as a judge in the District Court of Alberta; a notable accomplishment as he was the youngest judge to be appointed in approximately three decades. In 1979, the District Court merged with the Alberta Supreme Court, and he became a judge of Alberta’s Court of Queen’s Bench.
As a trial judge, he heard many notable cases that were significant to the greater society. He oversaw one of the longest insolvency cases in Canadian history: 20 years of liquidity applications related to the Canadian Commercial Bank, the first bank to go under in more than 50 years. He case-managed hundreds of claims against the provincial government involving abuse under the Sexual Sterilization Act of 1928. That legislation, repealed in the early 1970s, allowed involuntary sterilization in certain conditions, often unjustified. By late 1999, hundreds of impacted individuals had reached settlements with the government. In all, Allan gave over 750 orders and wrote more than 50 decisions on this historic case alone.
Allan’s judicial career, and his position as Chief Justice, took him beyond Alberta’s borders. He was appointed Deputy Judge of the Yukon Territories in 1979, the Northwest Territories in 1993 and of the Nunavut Court of Justice in 1998. He became a member of the Canadian Judicial Council, which is the governing body of and for Canadian judges. He and five of his Judicial Council colleagues travelled to Russia and Ukraine to assist judges as they evolved their new court system from its structure under a communist regime.
As a judge, Allan was asked to preside over ceremonies for 600 young lawyers being admitted to the bar. This was a record and a testament to the respect the “Polish Prince” had gained within his profession.
Taken together, his efforts and accomplishments in the legal profession and on the bench had a common theme: to reinforce fairness, to give all people a voice and to promote equal opportunity for every member of society. He pursued these themes with a rare blend of dignity and good humour.
A judge, and particularly a Chief Justice, must maintain independence and as a result must forgo many of the social activities that are open to others. Within these confines, Allan has maintained a highly active role in the community at large, accepting leadership roles in many areas; for example, by serving on the board of Edmonton’s United Way.
His involvements echo foundational elements from his youth. Allan has valued the support and strength his Roman Catholic faith provided. This has led him to become actively involved in organizations such as St. Joseph’s Basilica, Catholic Social Services, Catholic Charities and the Alberta Catholic Welfare Association. He served as Chair of the Board of the Edmonton General Hospital (Grey Nuns) and the National President of the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development & Peace, which brought him to Rome for meetings.