When Allan Wachowich, QC, was asked to become a judge in 1974 -- at 39, the youngest appointed in Canada in many decades -- he was initially not that keen.
As an insurance and insolvency lawyer, “I was making really good money, over $150,000 a year, which was like $800,000 now,” said Wachowich. “As a judge my salary was $34,900.”
Yet he accepted the appointment to the District Court of Alberta, later becoming the now-retired Chief Justice of the Court of Queen’s Bench. On October 18, he will receive the Alberta Order of Excellence, the province’s highest honor for a citizen.
Wachowich’s illustrious career has included several landmark cases, such as the Bridges decision which made it mandatory for police across Canada to inform the accused of their rights to legal aid. Yet just as happened when he was first asked to be a judge, for Wachowich the news of his being honoured immediately triggered thoughts of his parents.
“My father came over from Poland in 1897, when he was about four, with five of his siblings, said Wachowich, ‘58, LLB and ‘10 LLD (Hon).
The winter of 1903 saw their extended family of 16 people living in a tiny shack near Skaro, AB. Wachowich’s father attended just one day of school. His mother, also a Polish immigrant, quit at Grade 3 to care for her siblings.
“For them to have raised eight children and to have six of them be graduates of the University of Alberta, you can see that they had a sense of dedication and did everything possible so that their children had the opportunities that they did not have to get an education,” Wachowich said.
Now 83, Wachowich made them proud while certainly fulfilling the criteria that the Order of Excellence demands: rendering service of distinction and excellence that had outstanding provincial, national or international impact.
After serving on the District Court, he became a judge of the Court of Queen’s Bench of Alberta in 1979, when Alberta’s District and Supreme Courts merged. He was Associate Chief Justice of the Court of Queen’s Bench from 1993 to 2000, and Chief Justice from 2000 to 2009, staying in a supernumerary (part-time) capacity until retiring in 2010.
In addition to the Bridges case, Wachowich presided over several other notable events in Canadian legal history.
Between 1985 and 2000, he heard all of the liquidation applications of the Edmonton-based Canadian Commercial Bank, the largest bank failure in Canada’s history.
“Over 700 orders, 50 written judgments and about 15 cases that went to the Supreme Court,” said Wachowich. “There hadn’t been a liquidation of a bank since the First World War, so you were making all kinds of law with no precedents to rely on. It was very significant.”
During his tenure as chief justice, he had the task of creating order around the doomed Trang Gang trial, a logistical nightmare that was meant to be a test of Canada’s then-new organized crime laws, but which collapsed due to lengthy delays that violated many of the accuseds’ Charter rights. To house the massive drug-gang trial that included 30 accused with multiple lawyers, Wachowich had a secure courtroom built for $2.1 million.
Wachowich also shouldered considerable pro bono work. He was the Canadian Football League’s arbitrator for 20 years, and helped train judges in Russia and Ukraine on behalf of the Canadian Judicial Council.
He held numerous leadership roles within his community, serving as Chancellor of Concordia University from 2013 to 2017, and as honorary colonel to 15 (Edmonton) Field Ambulance, a reserve force unit of the Canadian Forces Health Services Group.
But his fondest memories are of the times where he was not the focus of attention. “As a judge, every day you are dealing with misery. The only thing you do that’s a happy thing -- and only in Alberta -- is bar admissions. In my career, I did 636!”