Former Manitoba attorney general, lawyer, University of Manitoba dean of law, author and social justice champion Roland Penner, 93, died Thursday from complications following a broken ankle.
As attorney general, Penner was known for his role in introducing Manitoba’s first human rights legislation and including protections for sexual orientation, Manitoba’s first Legal Aid system, the freedom of information legislation and legislation requiring French-language services in Manitoba.
Penner was a U of M law professor from 1972 to 2009, the founding chair and president of Manitoba’s new Legal Aid system in 1972 to 1978, the dean of the U of M Faculty of Law in 1989 to 1994 and a senior scholar with the faculty until his death. He was an NDP MLA from 1981 to 1988 in Winnipeg’s Fort Rouge riding under the Howard Pawley government and served as attorney general, among other appointments.
Penner was appointed to the Queen’s Council (1972), the Order of Canada (2000), the Order of Manitoba (2014) and was the recipient of the Canadian Bar Association’s Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Community Ally Award (2016).
In his obituary, his family notes Penner was headed out to play bridge on the day after a blizzard when he broke his ankle and "was determined to live his life to the fullest."
His family stated in his obituary Penner spent a "lifetime fighting for social justice and human rights."
"He was unstoppable," said Lorna Turnbull, Penner’s former U of M colleague who also served as dean of law (2011-2016). She said she knew Penner for nearly two decades.
"He was coming up to his 94th birthday in July and we’d still see him out at the faculty on a regular basis. He was still working on a couple of books. He was a regular force of nature."
Turnbull said Penner was known at the U of M, in addition to his work with students, for the way he mentored colleagues.
His public service work changed the legal and social landscape for people across the country, she said.
"The impacts that he had affect the day-to-day lives today of Manitobans and Canadians in ways that are lasting," Turnbull said.
She said Penner’s work in implementing French-language services in Manitoba "has absolutely enriched our province" and was particularly significant since there was pushback at the time from the Supreme Court of Canada.
Andrew Swan, the NDP MLA for Minto, said he had a chance to work with Penner in 2012 when the NDP was updating the human rights code which was the 25th anniversary of Penner’s work on the human rights legislation in Manitoba.
"I had a look in the Hansard of what was said in the legislature at that time and it was some pretty fierce opposition," Swan said. "I really think it can be said that we stand on the shoulders of people like Roland Penner who was brave and was prepared to move the goalposts in a way that a generation later is continuing to benefit from."
NDP leader Wab Kinew expressed his condolences to Penner’s family and paid tribute to Penner in a statement on his Twitter account.
"Rest In Power Roland Penner: a great Manitoban and a strong New Democrat who served our province as Attorney General, among many other important roles...Miigwech Roland for all you’ve done!" the statement read.
"Roland did a lot to advance social justice in Manitoba but seeing as it’s Pride week it may be particularly poignant to commemorate his work on the Manitoba Human Rights Code and for bringing human rights protections for sexual orientation to our province."
Penner was born in Winnipeg on July 30, 1924, to Jacob Penner and Rose Shapack was raised in Winnipeg’s North End.
He joined Canada’s military at age 19 and served in the Canadian artillery in Europe during the Second World War. After the war, he attended the U of M where he earned arts and law degrees. He was called to the Manitoba bar in 1961.
Penner began his teaching career in law at the U of M in 1967 while he was still a practicing lawyer. His obituary notes he taught courses in constitutional law, criminal law, labour law, evidence, and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Updated on Saturday, June 2, 2018 at 11:24 PM CDT: Edited