“One night, we were sitting around the dinner table and we had a guest who’d also fought in the war,” recalled Bernard Monnin, his second eldest son, who is now a legal translator in Montreal. “This guest spoke about his experiences and asked my father about his. My father was very polite, giving one word answers that didn’t reveal anything. But this guy persisted and finally, he said ‘I told you where I was. I don’t want to talk about it.’ And that was the end of it.”
When he practised as a lawyer, the only time Justice Monnin spoke French was when he was conferring with clients. Otherwise, in court, in correspondence and in meetings with other parties’ lawyers, he had to speak English – the language of the day in the province’s legal world. He never spoke about whether it frustrated or angered him, but his sons note that the fact they had to speak French at home was due to the determination that they be loud, proud and perfectly at ease with where they came from.
“There was a case in the mid-1950s where my dad was asked to defend three runaways from Quebec who’d killed a priest,” said Bernard Monnin. “It was unusual because for the first time in Manitoba a lawyer was allowed to question witnesses in court in French.”
In 1957, Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent appointed him to Manitoba’s Court of Queen’s Bench – a job he said he gladly accepted, not just for the challenge but also because it came with a regular paycheque, which with a big family to support was welcome.
“As a judge, you don’t have to go ask for money from your clients,” he told Dr. MacPherson in that same 2012 interview. “It’s a good salary, with a good retirement plan, with an indexed pension.”
He sat on the provincial bench for five years, until Prime Minister John Diefenbaker promoted him to the Court of Appeal. In 1983, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau named him Manitoba’s Chief Justice, a position he held for seven years before retiring.
In a way, it’s no surprise Mr. Monnin was appointed and promoted by three such different administrations.
He was old school and a stickler for propriety, Bernard Monnin said, who even let go of longtime friendships with politicians so that he could be impartial. And during his years on the bench, he wrote several major decisions that were important to the development of law in Manitoba, particularly in the area of linguistic rights.
Despite a heavy workload, Mr. Monnin returned home nearly every day for lunch. Suppers were at 6 o’clock on the dot and featured long arguments about everything from grammar to politics and the proper minimum age for drivers’ licences.
“He’d send us to the den to get the dictionary in order to clarify points of grammar,” Bernard Monnin said. “And he believed 18 years old was better than 16 to begin driving.”
He rode his bicycle, an old, three-speed clunker fitted with a shopping basket, until he was 89, an old fisherman’s cap perched on head. For three years, he was primary caregiver for his wife, who suffered a series of strokes before she died.
Among the many honours he received were honorary doctor of law degrees from the University of Manitoba, the University of Winnipeg and the University of Ottawa. In 1979, he was appointed a member of L’Ordre des francophones d’Amérique and he was also an officer of the French Legion of Honour.
In 1990, he was named to the Order of Canada for having “distinguished himself on the bench for more than 30 years, during which he contributed greatly to the province’s legal system.”
But one of his biggest legacies is his family. “The name Monnin is an institution here in the legal world,” Chief Justice Chartier said.
Indeed, the law is a tradition, from the two sons who are judges, the son who is a legal translator, a daughter-in-law who is a family court judge, another who was an associate deputy minister of justice in Ottawa and grandchildren who have followed their elders into the field.
“He never steered us toward the law,” Bernard Monnin remarked. “Pragmatic until the end, he always said if we wanted to do something, we should go into the sciences where there was much more potential in the future. But none of us were any good at math.”
Along with his five sons and their wives, Justice Monnin leaves 12 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.