Meet the B.C. senior who mailed us his life in a box
Jack Cann, co-founder of groundbreaking student listen line, gets his chance to speak.
"Sometimes it's enough to just let the person talk."
Jack Cann spoke those words in 1969 to a reporter at the Edmonton Journal. Back then, the 74-year-old retiree was a 27-year-old student describing Students Help, a new telephone support line staffed by volunteers at the University of Alberta — the first of its kind in Canada, he says.
At his current home on Vancouver Island, Cann packed yellowing evidence of the project, and many other life achievements, into an empty case of beer. He also enclosed his birth certificate, handwritten letters, every degree and diploma to his name and family photos dating as far back as 1925.
He then addressed his package to the CBC, and dropped it in the mail.
'If you see a story'
Only Cann shipped us his real-life physical records.
His box spent several months in the busy Toronto newsroom, three time zones away from Cann's quiet tree-lined street in Campbell River, B.C. It raised eyebrows and pulled heartstrings, and changed hands a few times before ultimately landing in front of CBC host Amanda Parris.
Cameras rolling, she experienced what a handful of producers had already felt behind the scenes: a slow immersion into the rich life of a total stranger.
"I am divorced. No Kids. 74 years old. I'm sending you the albums of my life in Canada, and if you can see a story feel free to use the photos and documents," he wrote in a letter introducing the box.
"I have no one to pass them on to, so time is not an issue."
Inside, Cann had packed two albums and a folder full of his certifications. Each item revealed something intimate, but also raised many new questions, for instance: how could one ordinary Canadian life be so extraordinary?
You don't know Jack: 5 things we learned about Jack Cann
- He's truly a Jack of all trades. He sent us an impressive array of diplomas, degrees and certificates. He's studied education, basic law, guidance and counselling. He's a certified pipeline inspector, pleasure craft operator, and mineral prospector. He's done workshops in financial management, risk communications, and so much more. His job titles have ranged from pool supervisor to counsellor to environmental manager at a coal mine.
- He personally witnessed major moments in Canadian history. For instance, he attended the famous Expo 67 centennial celebrations, and acted as a mediator at the infamous "Computer Riot" in 1969.
- He's lived in big cities and small towns. Jack has lived in Brooks, Grand Prairie and Edmonton, Alta., Montreal, Que., Kelowna, Victoria, and Campbell River B.C., Inuvik, N.W.T and Iqaluit, Nunavut. He's also lived abroad, having taught English in Kuwait.
- He's got a wide assortment of survival skills. In his youth he was a boy scout and an athlete and an air cadet, and over the years he learned to lifeguard, drive a boat, fly a helicopter, operate a weather station, perform CPR, fight fire and more.
- He doesn't claim to be a virtuoso. Cann admits that many of his career choices didn't quite work out, and that he was actually fired from a few jobs. He's good humoured about his "master of none" status, though, seeing every short-lived pursuit as an adventure.
Everyone at CBC who leafed through his personal artifacts had a deeply personal reaction — and it seemed the more curious the person, the more little discoveries the box had to offer.
A sympathetic ear
One thing was clear throughout the collection: from a young age, Cann believed in the power of listening to others, and that people often need human connection more than they need advice.
Three articles about Students Help, from the late 60s and early 70s, underscore that insight.
Cann told The Edmonton Journal that, by the end of the 1969 there "seemed to be a need for some anonymous listener who, without red tape or formality, could listen to whatever a person had to talk about."
From a young age, Cann believed in the power of listening to others, and that people often need human connection more than they need advice.
When necessary, the student volunteers would offer referrals, but a young Cann stressed the importance of a "sympathetic ear" — particularly one from people who themselves have suffered through something.
Cann and his volunteers took calls about topics that are no less delicate today than they were in the '60s — struggles with mental health, suicide and abortion. At the time, most abortions were illegal across Canada, and advocates like Dr. Henry Morgentaler were just starting their decades-long battle for change.
More than meets the eye
As the debate raged on in the headlines, Cann and his peers faced the issue at the ground level.
"We don't condone abortions, but I personally would hate to see anyone left with no alternative but the backroom abortionist," Cann told a reporter in 1969. So when women would call asking for referrals, the volunteers answering the phone wouldn't turn them away.
"Let's just say we don't like saying no."
The legacy of Students Help
Representatives from the University of Alberta's current student union and peer support center confirm that Cann'shelpline has continued under different names.
The name changed to Student Distress Centre in 2000, and again to Peer Support Centre in 2010. By the early '90s, students could opt for drop-in services in addition to calling the confidential help line.
We reached out to Cann in late November to thank him for entrusting his precious mementos to us and learn more about his story.
That's when he told us the "hush hush" truth about Students Help: the volunteers knew of one established clinic in California, and they quietly "kicked together" a budget to help young women who decided to travel there.
"We gave them as much money as we could, which was usually about 300 or 400 hundred dollars. We said: if you can pay that back, we'll turn it back into the fund to help other people who come forward. And surprisingly, most of them did."
Decades later, Cann stands by his decision. "I'm proud of what we did," he says, adding simply: "it's your body. You've gotta have a say about it."
'I didn't expect anything'
These days, Cann spends his days cooking, watching TV, enjoying his views of the ocean and mountains, and having breakfasts with "the boys" — a group of older men that live nearby.
Cann is humble about his colourful life and many contributions, including the box he mailed to the CBC. When we revealed that we'd sorted through his box — and also filmed someone opening it for the first time — he seemed pleasantly surprised.
"I didn't expect anything. Mostly I was curious what you'd be curious about," he said, adding that he'd hoped for a phone call "at the least — or the most." He says he didn't know whether his collection contained a good story.
When told that, if anything, he sent more stories than we could work with, he laughed.
"It warms my heart to hear that."