British Columbia

'Mighty Hughes' biography profiles influential public servant

Ted Hughes' inquiries and reports sent a premier packing, created independent children’s advocate, launched compensation for residential school survivors.

Retired B.C. public servant dubbed ‘Canada’s moral authority’

Ted Hughes relaxes at the family cottage at Shawnigan Lake on Vancouver Island. (Craig McInnes)

The civil servant who sent a premier packing and led more than a dozen inquiries on issues from child protection to sexual discrimination in the justice system is finally retired at the age of 90, more or less.

But Ted Hughes, who was British Columbia's first conflict of interest commissioner, is not taking retirement sitting down.

This month, Hughes joined author and journalist Craig McInnes in Victoria and Saskatoon to talk about a new biography about his life and work.

The Mighty Hughes describes how his career path abruptly changed course when he decided to abandon a prominent position as a senior judge in Saskatchewan, where his career had stalled.

The new path which took Hughes and his family to faraway British Columbia would profoundly change the course of politics and public life in that province and beyond its borders.

The second act of his career would force the resignation of B.C. premier Bill Vander Zalm for using the perks of government to help the sale of his private theme park, persuade a later government to appoint a representative for children and youth, and establish ethical standards for politicians as one of Canadas first conflict commissioners. 

Hughes was appointed Saskatchewan District Court judge for Melfort, Saskatchewan in 1962. (Ted Hughes)

Much of his work during this time focused on Indigenous deaths and compensation for residential school abuse.

"He has fairly been called Canada's moral authority and the most credible man in British Columbia," McInnes wrote.

Partisan backlash

In Saskatchewan, McInnes wrote, Hughes felt the sting of gossip and criticism after he was passed over for promotion to chief judge in favour of a supporter of the governing Liberals. Hughes was a longtime Progressive Conservative and friend of former prime minister John Diefenbaker.

"Those that supported the other party came after me and the whole thing became very unpleasant," Hughes said in an interview with On the Island's Gregor Craigie.

"I just felt I could make a better contribution by moving on and leaving that life behind me," he said.

While Hughes was appalled by the partisan politics surrounding the chief judge's appointment, author McInnes observed that his own appointment to the bench in 1962 came through his Progressive Conservative connections. 

Starting over in Victoria

Hughes, his wife Helen who was a city councillor in Saskatoon, and their four children settled in Victoria.

Helen went to work for the office of the B.C. Ombudsman.

Ted took a mid-level position as a lawyer in the Attorney General's ministry and was promoted to deputy minister three years later. 

Soon after his appointment as Conflict of Interest Commissioner in 1991, Hughes accepted the task of investigating the conduct of Social Credit Premier Bill Vander Zalm's conduct in connection with the sale of his theme park outside Vancouver to Tan Yu, a Taiwanese businessman.

Hughes, in the Victoria courthouse library in March, 2016, continued working through his late 80s

Hughes found that the premier had arranged a meeting with the finance minister and a luncheon with the B.C. Lieutenant Governor for Yu, receiving an envelope full of cash from the buyer for which there was "a lack of any reasonable explanation," McInnes wrote.

In the "Report of the Honourable E.N. Hughes Q.C. On the Sale of Fantasy Garden World Inc.," Hughes concluded that Vander Zalm mixed his personal business with the public interest throughout the negotiation and sale, in violation of his own conflict of interest guidelines. 

While Hughes' reputation spread, along with demand for his services as an inquiry commissioner, his wife Helen Hughes returned to municipal politics. She served 18 years as a city councillor in Victoria and took on volunteer roles.

For their public service, both Ted and Helen were appointed members of the Order of Canada and received honorary doctorates from the University of Victoria. 

John and Olive Diefenbaker with Ted Hughes, top right, and children. (Helen Hughes)

McInnes said Hughes' approach to public service stands out now in the era of the Donald Trump U.S. presidency. 

"He certainly represents everything Ted has fought against," McInnes said.

Hughes laments that public trust in politicians ranks low on most opinion surveys.

"I think they should be near the top because they do run our public affairs, they take charge of making the major decisions for all of us. And we want the best people to serve in public life," he said.

With files from CBC Radio One On the Island.