Bob Dylan once sang the unanswerable question, “How many roads must a man walk down before you call him a man?” In the case of John Hugh ‘Jack’ Gillis, the answer was one—but it was a long, long road indeed.

In January 1906, with no money and only a meager supply of food and water, Jack Gillis agreed to a most peculiar wager—to walk nearly 4000 miles across Canada on foot from Sydney, Nova Scotia to Vancouver and back in one year. This transcontinental tramp proved to be the first time in history an individual walked across Canada.

Gillis, joined by Charles Jackman of Halifax in northern Ontario, followed the Canadian Pacific Railroad clear to the coast, battling poor footwear, inclement weather, and bloodthirsty black flies. Arriving in Vancouver in late September and fully intending to trot back across the country, the attraction of beautiful Vancouver and its burgeoning sporting scene proved too great. Gillis was here to stay.

Standing a towering 6’4” in height—the eastern press soon dubbed him ‘The Western Giant’—Gillis proved a formidable athlete, attracting the attention of the Vancouver Police Force, who recruited him as a physical director. Later, Gillis was often confused with this era’s other great individual athlete, a fellow Vancouver police officer sharing the same surname: Duncan Gillis, BC’s first Olympic medalist and fellow BC Sports Hall of Famer. Probably unrelated, the two men competed against one another—Jack often besting Duncan—in local and national competitions and lived at the same address on Cordova Street.

Gillis’ versatility became legendary in the ‘all-round’ competition, an early precursor to today’s modern decathlon, consisting of various running, throwing, and jumping events. In 1909, he captured the Canadian all-round championship in Winnipeg. In August 1910, Gillis traveled to Chicago’s Marshall Field for the North American all-round championship and thrilled a crowd of over 3,500 in a seesaw battle with Los Angeles’ F.C. Thomson, the overwhelming favourite. Gillis finished a close second to Thomson, missing the gold medal by a slim 42 points—6951 to 6909.

He accumulated 63 career local, national, and international medals—mostly gold—and set a 16-lb shot put record that stood for 32 years. Gillis twice competed against New York policeman Martin Sheridan in two all-round competitions, narrowly losing the first, six events to four, but trouncing Sheridan eight events to two in the second. This same Martin Sheridan had won nine Olympic medals and three US all-round championships.

Favoured to medal in the 1912 Olympic Games all-round competition against formidable rivals that included the legendary Jim Thorpe, Gillis was forced to abandon training due to deteriorating health. Returning home to his family in Nova Scotia, tuberculosis claimed his life in 1913 at the age of 29. Sadly, we will never know what athletic heights he may have scaled.

For those doing the math, 2006 marks the 100th anniversary of Gillis’ historic cross-country jaunt. The story of one of BC’s greatest early athletes would have remained forgotten if not for the dedicated research of Toronto author George Hart. Hart captures the memory of Gillis’ amazing athletic accomplishments in Transcontinental Pedestrians to be published this spring.

The question of whether Jack Gillis would have captured an Olympic medal in 1912 if not for his sudden illness remains, much like Dylan’s famous question, frustratingly unanswerable and open for historical debate. It’s quite possible he would have joined Duncan Gillis as BC’s first Olympic medalists—likely even—but the answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind…

Written and researched by Jason Beck, Curator of the BC Sports Hall of Fame.