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Richard B. Splane: A life of service (by Wanda Chow)

It was Dec. 24, several years back, at the Chapel of the Epiphany on the University of British Columbia campus. I found him in the foyer stretching his legs just before the Christmas Eve service for University Hill United Church. “He” was Richard Splane, known as Dick to his friends. And I was about to do something for which I will always be grateful for having had the opportunity. I introduced my mother to Dick, so she could express her own gratitude to him personally.

You see, Dick was the chief architect of the Canada Assistance Plan, which helped maintain national standards for social services. He was one of our country’s leading social workers. And he helped implement elements of Canada’s social safety net so taken for granted today, from Unemployment Insurance to the Canada Pension Plan.

My mother, meanwhile, was a single mother who, decades ago, raised two children on her wages as a seasonal cannery worker. Unemployment Insurance, as today’s Employment Insurance was then called, was crucial to her ability to make ends meet when only called out to work six months out of every year.

“Thank you,” she said to Dick, shaking his hand. “You really helped me a lot.” Dick seemed somewhat taken aback. I can’t imagine this was an everyday occurrence, nor would his modest, reserved nature have expected it. “Well, it was very much needed,” Dick replied, referring to the social program. It appears so was Dick, and his wife Verna, by Canada.

Richard Beverley Splane died on Nov. 8 at the age of 99 in Vancouver, only months after his equally accomplished wife Verna Huffman Splane passed away in January 2015 at 100 years of age. Theirs was a partnership whose influence spanned the globe, including a lengthy stint as part of the UBC community.

Dick was born in Calgary, the youngest of six children in a strong Baptist family. During the Great Depression, he worked with Frontier College teaching people who worked in mining and railroad construction camps, which gave him an understanding of the difficulties faced by those without means.

Dick went on to study history and political science at McMaster University, but work at the University of Toronto on a masters in history was interrupted by the Second World War. Dick served as a pilot with the Royal Canadian Air Force, and in England was a member of a Lancaster squadron on bomber command.

After the war, he stayed in England to study social science and administration at the London School of Economics. Upon his return to Canada in 1947, he set about completing his master’s in history at U of T, followed by masters and doctoral degrees in social work.

He and his then-wife and fellow social worker, Marion Coon, were heavily involved in social welfare. As his obituary noted, Dick worked for the federal government between 1952 and 1972 “where he carried senior responsibilities during the development of Canada’s social security system.” He also represented Canada at international meetings at the United Nations Expert Group on Social Welfare Policy and Planning, and served on the UNICEF board in 1961 and 1964. Dick inspired and mentored a generation of Canadian social workers.

After Marion’s death, Dick met Verna Huffman whom he married in 1971.

Verna had her own lengthy list of notable achievements. Before becoming Canada’s first Chief Nursing Officer, her work in public health took her overseas with the World Health Organization. She was also among the many professionals who developed the policies that eventually led to Canada’s Medicare system.

In 1973, the couple moved to Vancouver where, from 1975 to 1984, Verna was a faculty member at UBC’s School of Nursing before finishing her teaching career at the University of Victoria from 1985 to 1991. Dick became professor of social policy at UBC’s School of Social Work in the Faculty of Arts until he retired in 1982.

Even in retirement the couple were more active than many half their ages. As Verna’s obituary noted, “Not content to retire into their golden years, Verna and Richard undertook a groundbreaking multi-year study of the role of chief nursing officers in more than 50 countries.” From hearing people speak who knew them well, it’s clear that one of the couple’s greatest gifts was an ability to bring people together, often at the dinner parties they hosted for which they were famous.

The two were longtime members of the University Hill congregation and when it went through a challenging time several years ago, Dick and Verna recognized it needed to heal and rebuild its sense of community. And so they hosted the congregation to a dinner at Sage, the former UBC Faculty Club, to celebrate its life together with food, drink, music and even a dance lesson, culminating in a joyful conga line. Dick and Verna had an innate ability to make people feel at ease. Indeed, in conversation they gave the impression that you were the most important person in their world at that very moment.

Over the years Dick and Verna both received numerous awards, national and international. They were both made Officers of the Order of Canada, Verna in 1996 and Dick in 2004. UBC, along with the Vancouver branches of the United Nations Association in Canada (UNA) and the World Federalist Movement, established the annual Dr. Richard B. Splane Lecture in Social Policy. Patsy George, UNA-Vancouver past president, and a longtime friend of Dick, who mentored her, gave the introduction to this year’s lecture, which took place only days after Dick’s death. In her speech, posted on the UNA-Vancouver website, George noted that the lecture began as a 90th birthday gift to Dick. “He was very pleased and somehow had understood that it was just one lecture. The next year when I went to consult him on behalf of the planning committee, he simply could not believe that it was an annual event to honour his contribution, and to engage the public, particularly students, in social policy discussions. Dick had attended every lecture until this year.”

Also among the Splanes’ many accolades was UBC’s first-ever joint honourary degree, Doctor of Laws, in 1996. As the citation on the occasion stated, “we often speak about the whole being greater than the sum of its parts.Verna Huffman Splane and Richard Splane are living proof of this truism … Individually and together, they have contributed significantly to Canada’s stature as a world leader in health and social service policy development.”

And as one of the millions in Canada and around the world who benefited from their work, caring and compassion, I have to add two words: thank you.


Wanda Chow is a UBC Arts alumna and a member of the University Hill Congregation.

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Wanda Chow

Vancouver, Canada

Graduated ,

Faculty of Arts