Allan Wachowich’s impact has been felt in the courtroom and the community
By Steven Sandor | January 3, 2024
In 2019, Concordia University of Edmonton opened its new building dedicated to science, research and innovation. It was named for Allan Wachowich, who was chancellor of the institution from 2013-17.
For the man known throughout the city as “the Polish Prince,” it was yet another honour in a life dedicated to law, faith and community service.
Six years ago, Wachowich was inducted to the Alberta Order of Excellence. The résumé is impressive.
The former chief justice of the Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench was selected to be a judge in 1974, and he oversaw many high-profile cases, including the collapse of the Canadian Commercial Bank and the murder trial of William Brydges, which offered one of the first major legal tests under the newly signed Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
When Brydges was brought into custody, the Charter was a new document. Brydges asked the questioning police officer several times about Legal Aid, but was still interrogated before a lawyer was made available to him. Wachowich ruled that Brydges’ Charter rights were violated — it was a case that was appealed all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada, where Wachowich’s decision was supported.
“The case had a real effect on me,” recalled Wachowich. “Most cases, you make a decision, you hand down your decision and you forget about it. This one here haunted me for quite a while.”
Wachowich didn’t just preside over courts in Edmonton. He regularly traveled north to the territories to preside over courts there, often riding to the destinations in small propeller planes with the accused seated nearby. He was one of the first white judges to embrace the Indigenous concept of restorative justice.
“I’ve never had the reputation of being a person who is ‘jail them and lock them up and forget about them,’” said Wachowich. “I’ve always felt that there is a way to deal with things whereby people can reconcile, [and] provide some people with some hope that they may redeem themselves and that the person who has been harmed can in some way obtain some satisfaction for the loss they have sustained.”
Wachowich also presided over hundreds of settlements for victims of Alberta’s Sexual Sterilization Act. Between 1928 and 1972, the Alberta Eugenics Board approved the sterilization of thousands of mentally ill patients. After a landmark lawsuit from victim Leilani Muir (in a decision made by Madam Justice Veit), the door was opened for the province to compensate all of the victims.
Ironically, years before, as a member of the Catholic Welfare Association, Wachowich had lobbied to get the sterilization law off the books.
“Sterilization really bothered me. I thought to myself that this was what Hitler was doing,” he said. “To me, it was a repulsive thing to do. There was no permission granted.”
Wachowich was a respected basketball referee, and served in a number of Catholic charities, including chairing the board of the Edmonton General Hospital (Grey Nuns) and the presidency of the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development & Peace. He was also an arbitrator for the Canadian Football League.
Sport was always important to Wachowich. In fact, he wanted to attend the University of Alberta and major in phys. ed., until his older brother, Ed, steered him toward law.
“He was dictatorial,” Allan recalled of Ed. “But he was right. I listened and obeyed. After all, he was six years older and he was my only older brother.”