by Anne Miller | photos by Janis Jean Photography –
While we’d never met, upon approaching the window of his apartment building, his warm smile met mine. Centenarian Peter Chance was waiting for me to do our interview and escorted me to his living room where he immediately presented me with a signed copy of his memoir, A Sailor’s Life: 1920-2001. We then began a long and delightful conversation. That exchange with him was one of the privileges of my life.
I discovered how remarkable and interesting Peter is, in countless ways, beginning with the fact that, at 102 years old (this November), Peter remains spirited, engaged and enthusiastic about life. His riveting tales of achievements as a young lad included sailing, skiing and, especially, his love of figure skating, succeeding as a junior figure skating champion for Canada in 1938/1939. That “can-do” attitude, spurred by his strict instructor, set the tone for his life. “He was a terrible taskmaster, but it was good. He’d say: ‘Do it again! What’s the matter with you!?'”
Peter’s tenacity was, no doubt, instrumental in his successes throughout his life. The “untapped potential” of competitive skating was disrupted by Canada’s entry into WWII but Peter’s drive, abilities and outgoing personality persevered. At 18, he joined the Naval Reservists as a midshipman, “relegated to the position of ‘speak when you’re spoken to'” and, from there, he sailed his way (pardon the pun) into the Navy, contributing more than 30 years of service.
Peter’s wartime efforts included dangerous missions navigating frigates and destroyers, “plodding to and from St. John’s, Newfoundland; across the North Atlantic to Londonderry in the wintertime; manoeuvring through some 60-foot waves! It was just godawful. However, we prevailed.” He commanded two ships and achieved a significant number of military awards, dedications and commendations during his leadership in WWII, the Korean War and several senior post-war positions. Notably, France awarded him the National Order of the Legion of Honor and CFB Esquimalt Naval and Military Museum renamed a gallery in his honour.
Following a decorated career in the Navy, Peter served as Executive Officer to the Dean of the Osgoode Hall Law School, and, later, as director of the BC/Yukon Duke of Edinburgh’s International Award program, which, according to their website: “challenges young Canadians to develop the skills and tools to improve themselves and their communities by encouraging them to go beyond their comfort zone.” Peter felt comfortable in that role. “I had to present myself to as many people as I possibly could. I was busier than a hornet during those 12 years but, oh, I enjoyed it immensely!”
In light of the current war in Ukraine, and our reflections on Remembrance Day, Peter offered his thoughts. He admires the passion of Ukrainians fighting to defend their country against Russian aggression. “I think are tremendous!” While the Ukrainian/Russian war can seem removed from most of us in North America, Peter reminds us of the common thread between it and WWII: “It was about FREEDOM! If it were not for us, who went to war to fight the Nazis, life would be pretty bloody awful for all of us. That was what it was about – freedom.” Placed alongside the recent use of the word, freedom, as used by the “Freedom Convoy” that assailed Ottawa, Peter was clear. “That’s selfish, personal freedom!” Peter was talking about freedom from tyranny for all.
Our conversation revealed a man who is articulate, witty, sincere and dedicated to serving his community. Along his life’s journey, he married and had four children, gathered countless friends and made acquaintances with several famous politicians and public figures, including master photographer Yousuf Karsh, who became a friend and created several portraits of him. Later in life, Peter made significant contributions to his community, notably creating the UVic Commander Peter Chance MASC (Maritime Award Society) Graduate Fellowship for graduate students engaged in ocean-related studies. For many years, Peter has also supported the ALS Society and countless community organizations.
Much of Peter’s life is captured in his memoir, which he wrote at 91 years old, “without notes; all from memory,” a memory which is undeniably exceptional. “What can I say? I was endowed with a good memory and good genes.”
I left Peter’s home inundated with information and a deep respect for a man who remembers and appreciates the past but who also enthusiastically looks toward the future. A one-of-a-kind man, still so full of life, with no regrets. “I had a hell of a good run.”