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Michael Mandel, York University professor, is leading an international attempt to charge NATO with war crimes over the Kosovo War. (Patti Gower/the Globe and Mail)
Michael Mandel, York University professor, is leading an international attempt to charge NATO with war crimes over the Kosovo War. (Patti Gower/the Globe and Mail)

Obituary

Legal scholar Michael Mandel stoked the fires of debate Add to ...

Students wandering the corridors of Osgoode Hall Law School would often hear Prof. Michael Mandel’s strong tenor voice before they encountered the man himself – the wafting notes of an aria announcing his presence on the campus where he taught for 39 years.

“You never had to wonder when Michael Mandel was in the building,” recalled Lorne Sossin, Osgoode Hall’s dean of law. “I will miss that singing.”

A far-left legal scholar with a passion for opera, Prof. Mandel was a fixture at the renowned law school, no mean feat at a time when politics have torqued steadily to the ideological right and Marxist analysis is as popular as bird flu.

Prof. Mandel, who died on Oct. 27 at the age of 65, was the law school’s longest-serving professor. He had continued teaching until the end of the spring semester without revealing to his students that a grave heart condition – cardiac amyloidosis – had left him little time to live.

Brash, erudite and ever enthusiastic about his work, Prof. Mandel fit securely within the Osgoode ethos. Whenever faculty split over a contentious policy relating to hiring, curriculum or corporate donations, Prof. Mandel could be found agitating. At protest rallies denouncing U.S. global imperialism or espousing Palestinian rights, he was never far from a megaphone.

Max Mandel, one of Prof. Mandel’s five children, says that his father “was always looking for the moral and just point of view on any issue. He felt the law was supposed to serve the people. So he wanted to expose it as being used to serve the powerful.”

Although he was never a card-carrying member of the Communist Party of Canada, Prof. Mandel supported the Communist Party of Italy in later life and was a consistent, outspoken defender of Fidel Castro and the Cuban revolution.

At Osgoode, his classes in criminal law, legal politics and the law of war were cauldrons of debate. Nobody was permitted to simply sit back and take notes. Students were free to adopt any position, but they were compelled to defend against sustained attack in free-flowing debate.

The one posture Prof. Mandel could not abide was indifference. “Law is not a thing, but a way of arguing things,” he was fond of saying.

Without a doubt, some of the approximately 4,000 law students Prof. Mandel taught gritted their teeth and endured his class-based analysis of legal structures and privilege. But many credit him for fostering their ability to see through artifice, to question and debate conventional legal wisdom.

Early lessons in inequality

Michael Mandel was born in Toronto on May 6, 1948. His parents – Max and Hilda Mandel – were Jewish immigrants from Poland.

He was just five when his life took a calamitous turn. His father – a popular musician and singing star on a local radio show called The Jewish Hour – died suddenly of a stroke, leaving his wife to raise their three children on her paltry earnings as a seamstress.

“He grew up with an underlying feeling that there was no safety net,” said Prof. Mandel’s second wife, Karen Golden. “The rug could be pulled out from under you at any time.”

Hilda never remarried. Watching her work late into the night, catering to well-off clients, had a searing effect on her son. He fiercely admired her inner strength and determination, and he resented the circumstances of her struggle.

“Michael very directly felt what socioeconomic inequality was,” Ms. Golden said. “He wanted to translate his discontent into action; to give a voice to people he felt were suffering. He wanted to make their oppression public.”

Graduating from Osgoode Hall at the top of his class in 1972, he cherished a moment when, after presenting him with a prestigious Silver Medal, then-chief justice of Canada Bora Laskin shook Hilda’s hand and whispered: “Good work, mother.”

After a couple of unfulfilling years at a downtown law firm, Prof. Mandel returned to the friendly confines of Osgoode. The law school had long seen social justice and political eclecticism as being an integral part of its identity. It was an ideal roosting place for a leftist activist with the heart of a teacher.

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