Jack Austin was born in Calgary, Alberta to hardworking parents engaged in agriculture and cattle raising. After an accident his father acquired a grocery store, where Austin had his first job and learned about business first hand. He graduated from Crescent Heights High School in 1950, and came to study at the University of British Columbia, indulging his interests in History, Political Science and Economics. At the time, it was possible to start law part way through an undergraduate degree, receiving credit towards a B.A. from studies at the law school. He completed his B.A. at UBC in 1954, and obtained his LL.B. a year later in 1955.
As a student at the law school, Mr. Austin was hardworking and clever. He came first in his class in first year, 3rd in his second year, and in his 3rd assumed editorship of the UBC Legal Notes publication (the precursor to the UBC Law Review journal). His academic achievement led to his acceptance with a scholarship to study an LL.M. at Harvard. Austin recalls one day when Dean George Curtis called him into the Dean’s office and informed Austin he would not be going to Harvard in the fall in 1955. Instead, Dean Curtis would be at Harvard for the academic year as a visiting scholar, and Austin would stay behind at UBC to lecture for the Dean’s courses. Dean Curtis had already arranged his admission deferral at Harvard, and Austin began his LL.M. in the fall of 1956 instead.
Jack Austin spent the next year lecturing as possibly the freshest instructor ever to teach at the school, working alongside colleagues he’d only just sat in front of the previous spring. He remembers Professor Ray Herbert as a cartoonist who’d elaborate on cases with his drawings, and constitutional Professor Charlie Bourne being invited to help write the constitution of Afghanistan. Professor Malcolm MacIntyre was an inspiring mentor to Austin, and he recalls similarly connecting with his own students Stan Beck and John Bruke.
During his brief professorship, Austin met with then UBC president Norman Mackenzie who was himself an international law expert. President Mackenzie suggested that he and Austin co-author an international law article, which was published as “A Canadian view of territorial seas and fisheries” in 1956. That article became the basis for Austin’s dissertation at Harvard.
Returning to Canada, Jack Austin would spend an increasing amount of time in politics for the Liberal party. He was asked by the Leader of the Liberal Party of BC, Arthur Laing, to run his campaign to return to federal politics in 1962, earning his successful election as the MP for Vancouver South. Austin helped with Laing’s re-election in 1963, but in 1965 was himself asked to run in Vancouver-Kingsway. Austin admits that he wasn’t going to say no to a direct request from Prime Minister Pearson. It meant standing for election against NDP Candidate Grace MacInniss, widow of the previous MP. Unfortunately Austin lost the election, but at least the winner was the first woman from BC elected to the House of Commons.
Austin had another opportunity to serve in his country when he was appointed to the International Joint Commission, which mediates water disputes between Canada and the United States. His government service continued with his appointment as a deputy minister in the Department of Energy, Mines, and Resources. He was known to many in Ottawa through his ongoing involvement with the Liberal party, and at the time PM Pierre Trudeau wanted to appoint more deputy ministers who were familiar with the subject areas of the ministry. During his term the world faced the 1973 oil crisis. His white paper about state champion oil companies would become a factor in the creation of Petro-Can.
He left the Ministry of Energy, Mines, and Resources to become the chief of staff to Prime Minister Trudeau in 1974, a position in which he would serve for 15 months. At the end of his term, Austin’s return to BC coincided with the unfortunate passing of Arthur Laing, who at the time was representing British Columbia in the Canadian Senate. The Prime Minister approached Jack Austin to invite him to assume the senate seat, explaining that the PM had no friends in British Columbia. Austin accepted appointment to the senate and would serve from his appointment in 1975 until 2007.
Following the 1980 federal election, the Liberal government had no MPs from provinces west of Manitoba. Senator Austin was appointed to the governing cabinet in support of strengthening regional representation, and was appointed to a portfolio including Expo ’86. In this role, Austin recalls a meeting of the government’s Priorities and Planning executive committee where he presented the case for government support for Canada Place. After a thorough rejection from most ministers in attendance, the PM and Finance Minister Lalonde decided in favour of the project, although not until a few days after the meeting. After 1984 he was no longer a member of the cabinet, but returned to cabinet as Leader of the Government in the Senate from 2003 until 2006.
In addition to his life in public service, Austin established himself through a strong legal career and continued support for academic and economic innovation. Alongside talented colleagues he built the law practice of Andrews, Swinton, Margo, Austin & Williams, but since retiring from the Senate has worked as a Senior Advisor at Stern Partners. He received the Order of the Aztec Eagle, the highest Mexican honour for foreigners, for his assistance to Mexico during NAFTA negotiations. He was also president of the Canada-China Business Council, and was made an honorary professor at the Institute for Asian Research at UBC in 2007. He was inducted into the Order of British Columbia in 2010 and into the Order of Canada in 2014. He has been appointed Queen’s Counsel, and is the recipient of numerous Honourary Doctorates of Laws.
When asked what advice he has for those beginning their careers, the Honourable Jack Austin says that it is important to be holistic. He advises that there’s a benefit to looking broadly at issues and keeping yourself open to information and ideas as you progress through life.
The Honourable Jack Austin was interviewed for the Peter A. Allard School of Law History Project in Fall 2017.