Last Updated: Tuesday - 01/04/2011
September 10, 2001
Activist honoured with Order of Canada
Jack O'Neill a former Jesuit who has fought for human rights
WESTERN CATHOLIC REPORTER
ST. ALBERT — A former Jesuit priest and public servant who has distinguished himself in the human rights field has been named a companion of the Order of Canada.
Jack O'Neill, who served as deputy minister of culture in Alberta and chief commissioner of the province's human rights commission, learned of the honour he will receive from Gov. Gen. Adrienne Clarkson in late August.
"He is an advocate of universal human rights, who has distinguished himself in the service of others," the citation reads.
"I feel very honoured about this," O'Neill, 76, said in his St. Albert home. "And I feel very humbled by the fact that I know many other people who are very deserving of this kind of an honour but will never in their lifetime receive it."
The Toronto-born O'Neill entered the Jesuits in 1943 and remained with the order for more than 30 years. He was ordained a priest in 1956.
As a Jesuit, he earned a master of science in education, taught English and served as student counsellor in Winnipeg and Montreal. He also did stints as a university chaplain and parish priest.
During a 1973 sabbatical, O'Neill spent five months with Jean Vanier in southern France at one of the L'Arche homes for the mentally handicapped. "I was one of his assistants who came to work with the mentally disabled people," he recalled. "So I'm quite understanding of and sympathetic to the mentally handicapped."
Following a retreat in Spain the same year, the Jesuit became impatient with the strictures of life in a religious order and in 1974 he sought and received release from his vows.
The same year he married Mary O'Neill, the current Conservative MLA for St. Albert. The couple has two adult children, Timothy, 25, and Jacqueline, 23.
After leaving the Jesuits, O'Neill moved to Calgary and began a five-year stint as executive director of the Alberta Heart and Stroke Foundation, mainly raising funds for the organization.
In 1979, he accepted a position at Premier Peter Lougheed's office and later in intergovernmental affairs. During this time, at Lougheed's request, he helped to focus Alberta's position on the 1980 Quebec referendum.
In 1980, O'Neill was appointed deputy minister of culture, a position he would hold for 13 years. During his term, the Tyrell Museum was opened in Drum-heller and the Frank Slide and the Head Smashed in Buffalo Jump, both popular tourist attractions, were put in place.
When Ralph Klein became premier of Alberta in 1993, a particularly vexatious issue facing the government was the question of human rights, particularly as it applied to homosexuals.
The premier appointed an Alberta Human Rights Commission of eight people with O'Neill as chief commissioner and a mandate to hold a province-wide review.
The commission submitted its report, Equal in Dignity and Rights, and, among other things, unanimously recommended that a permanent Human Rights Commission, independent of government, be appointed and that discrimination based on sexual orientation be disallowed.
The government did not accept the independence of the commission but in 1988 agreed to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation.
O'Neill retired in 1994 but continues his service in retirement. In 1996 he and two other members of the Human Rights Foundation organized the 1998 international conference on human rights to mark the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
"We had over 700 participants representing 34 countries and that took two years of my life but it was worth it," O'Neill recalled. Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa and Chief Justice Antonio Lamer of the Supreme Court of Canada were two of the 50 presenters at the conference.
The former Jesuit also helped launch the John Humphrey Centre for Peace and Human Rights, an Edmonton-based organization aimed at promoting the values of the human rights declaration.
"I believe that an understanding and an appreciation of the values contained in (the UN declaration) of human rights is one of the best means to bring peace in the world," O'Neill said.
"And the basic value is the dignity at birth of every single human being."
In addition to his human rights activities, O'Neill also serves on the board of the Youville Home and on the St. Albert Arts and Heritage Foundation. He is also a member of an advisory council to the city's economic development department.
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