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“St. John Ambulance has a long-standing relationship with the Canadian Armed Forces. Many Canadians are members of both organizations. With common backgrounds and common ways of solving problems, we can get more done together. It’s all about making Canada a better place.”
Lieutenant-Colonel (Ret’d) John Mah of Edmonton has dedicated over 40 years of leadership, hard work and compassion to make life better for others. As a respected international lawyer, dedicated member of the Canadian Armed Forces, and tireless volunteer with St. John International, John helps people solve problems around the corner and around the world.
John Chew Mean Mah was born on December 20, 1950, in Sunkok, Toishan, Kwangtung, China. As a young child, he immigrated to Canada in 1956. He joined his grandparents who had immigrated ahead of him in 1913, and later opened the Union Cafe in Edson, Alberta. John remembers this as an exciting new time with lots to discover, from snow to a new language and new food.
A few years later, the family moved to Edmonton and settled in the Boyle Street area. In this working-class neighbourhood, young John met and learned to deal with a diverse variety of people, relationships, and situations. As was common for young immigrants at the time, he lost his ability to speak his first language as he immersed himself in Canadian culture.
John embraced hard work, setting a precedent that would endure throughout his life. After graduating from high school, he studied at the University of Alberta and served with the Loyal Edmonton Regiment of the Canadian Armed Forces. During his studies, he attended the Yale-in-China Chinese Language Centre in Hong Kong, and the Taipei Language Institute, where his appreciation for Chinese language and culture was renewed. While he was in Hong Kong, he also met his future wife, Anny Leung.
After John completed his Bachelor of Arts and his Bachelor of Laws, he became the fourth person of Chinese descent to be admitted to the Alberta Bar in 1977. He is a member of the Law Society of Alberta and is also licensed to practice law in England, Wales, and Hong Kong. While John was a senior partner at Chomicki Baril Mah LLP, heading the business services side of the law firm, he was appointed Queen’s Counsel in 1992.
A leader among the Chinese Canadian community for four decades, he provided pro bono guidance on family reunification, legal issues, and government access.
“In my extended family, when I was young, many of the older members did not speak English or speak it well. It devolved to the kids who learned English in schools to help them translate government letters and interact with the outside world,” recalls John. “It was natural that when I became a lawyer to continue to do this for all who asked me. As I progressed in my career, this help to others gave me an immense sense of satisfaction. I think it is fair to say that I received more than I gave.”
John’s service to the community was accompanied with a broader service to the country through his legal work in the military. Having started out as a soldier with the Loyal Edmonton Regiment, it was apparent to John’s superiors that he was always thinking and looking for ways to improve. In this way, Private Mah steadily worked his way up the ranks and was selected to enroll in officer training. He completed his service with the regiment at the rank of Captain. In 1986, John was invited to apply to the Canadian Army Reserves as a member of the Office of the Judge Advocate General. During his service, he established the Military Law Section of the Canadian Bar Association (Edmonton), allowing his civilian legal colleagues to gain insight into military law issues and to help them advise their clients in the Canadian Armed Forces. John served for over 20 years, retiring in 2009 at the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel. He retired from his legal practice in 2019, wrapping up a distinguished career of 43 years.
John’s strong social conscience is evident in his board service, pro bono work and fund-raising initiatives for non-profit organizations. He is a natural facilitator. His strong work ethic and innate drive to help others, combined with his leadership training in the military, mean that John is gifted at bringing together people who work well as teams to achieve their goals. Always seeking results rather than credit, he has quietly risen to high ranks not only in the military, but also within other local and international service organizations.
John has dedicated decades to ensuring the health, safety and quality of life of Canadians by working closely with the Order of St. John (operating in Canada as St. John Ambulance). During his time as chair of the Alberta Council, he was the moving spirit behind the construction of the LEED-certified St. John Centre for Training and Community Service in Edmonton. As the National Chair and Chancellor of St. John Ambulance, he oversaw first aid training across Canada.
John is now one of the four most senior St. John leaders in the world. As Sub-Prior of the Order of St. John, he ensures organizational and financial propriety in other national chapters of St. John Ambulance, and has oversight responsibility for the Order’s operations in more than 30 countries in the Caribbean, Africa, Asia Pacific and Mediterranean. With the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic, he leads St. John’s outreach in under-developed countries throughout these regions that teaches basic preventative measures like hand washing, mask use, and social distancing.
Throughout his service with St. John Ambulance, John has achieved a number of notable firsts. He was the first ethnic Chinese person to serve as chair of the Alberta Council, as chancellor and as national chair. His appointment to the position of Great Officer and Sub Prior of the global Order of St. John International marked the highest position ever held by an ethnic Chinese person, and he is only the second Canadian to hold the position.
Promoting local interests at the international level, John was one of the original members of the Hong Kong Canada Business Association, established in 1987 to promote trade between Canada and Hong Kong and the rest of Asia. He has served as director, section president, national chair and is currently governor of the association. He has travelled extensively throughout Asia promoting this venture, which is now the largest bilateral trade association in Canada. Many professionals and entrepreneurs alike have built successful strategic relationships over the decades, thanks to the guidance of John and the association.
At the community level, John was a charter member of CKER, where he provided legal advice and governance to help establish Chinese radio programming in Edmonton beginning in 1983. Many consider the station to be a major lifeline as it now serves over 12 ethnic groups in 15 languages.
John worked as honorary legal advisor and director of the Chinese Benevolent Association. This umbrella organization for Chinese non-profit groups in Edmonton addresses the needs of seniors, many of whom are without family in Edmonton. He was part of the planning committee that built the Edmonton Chinatown Continuing Care Centre that opened in 2003. In 1996, John helped establish the Chinese Canadian Pioneer Museum Foundation, which is dedicated to honouring the journey of early Chinese Canadian pioneers.
Over the years, John served as director and president of the venerable Mah Society of Edmonton and District, which helps Chinese immigrants transition to western society. He took a keen interest in drawing younger people into the organization to broaden participation and create a much-needed succession plan.
John has been proud to give back to his alma mater where he served two terms as a public member and chaired several committees of the University of Alberta’s Board of Governors. In 2013, he began serving as a director with the Edmonton Community Foundation. He also served as chair of the Audit Committee and served as vice-chair of the foundation. As a trustee of the Children’s Health Foundation of Northern Alberta (now known as Stollery Children’s Hospital Foundation), he helped raise funds to support the hospital.
Given his extensive community service, John’s honours and recognitions are many, including his promotions to the grade of Bailiff Grand Cross, The Most Venerable Order of The Hospital of St. John of Jerusalem. He has also been awarded the Canadian Forces Decoration, University of Alberta Alumni Association Honour Award, and Asian of the Year in Volunteerism from Asia Networks Canada.
John’s service to his community has been recognized by several medals. In 2017, he received the Senate of Canada 150 Medal. John has also received Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee Medal (2012), the Alberta Centennial Medal (2005), and Queen Elizabeth II’s Golden Jubilee Medal (2002).
John and Anny have two children, Andrew and Carolyn, one granddaughter and another on the way.