No matter if it was during a lively debate around the family dinner table or rendering judgments in a 33-year career on the bench, Alfred Monnin, the former chief justice of Manitoba, was erudite, concise and always grammatical. Schooled by Jesuits and perfectly bilingual, he knew that rules had to be followed, although on occasion he tacitly agreed they could be gently bent. When they were broken, however, he could be stern and terrifyingly blunt.
“Parlez français!” he would demand of his five sons if they were caught speaking English at home, even with their friends.
Once, when an accused claimed he had been forced by his male buddies to rape a young woman, he drily noted: “I can’t believe any red-blooded Canadian male would let himself get pushed around like that.”
And as the judge running the provincial inquiry into Progressive Conservative Party efforts to split the left-of-centre vote in the 1995 Manitoba election, he noted that in all his years on the bench, “I have never encountered as many liars in one proceeding as I did during this inquiry.”
Richard Chartier, the province’s current chief justice, noted that his predecessor’s decisions are still regularly cited, including one the appeal court revisited only a few months ago. “In 1981, he had overturned a trial judge’s decision to order a guilty party to make a donation to charity as a sentence,” the Chief Justice said. “His reasons back then were very precise and timeless. He said, ‘The less we hear of this practice, the better.’ ”
It was typical of a man who didn’t believe in taking the easy way out. For Mr. Monnin, who died of old age on Nov. 29 at the age of 93, one could not buy absolution, although in a pinch, community service would suffice.
His importance went well beyond his contributions on the bench, Chief Justice Chartier continued. As a fierce proponent of the French language, as a war veteran and as one who believed that communities must transcend their boundaries to come together and participate not only in Manitoba but in the country as a whole, Justice Monnin was an example for all Canadians.
“He had a strong work ethic, a strong sense of integrity and honesty and the moral courage to make unpopular decisions because they were right,” the Chief Justice said.
Alfred Maurice Monnin was born in Winnipeg on March 6, 1920, the youngest of Alphonse-Louis and Adèle Monnin’s three children. His father was a Swiss notary who came to Canada in 1905 with the notion of preparing the way for his wife, elder son and daughter to soon join him. But with the start of the First World War, it took four years for the family to be reunited. When it was, young Alfred was the result, a little boy with a mischievous streak who grew up in St. Boniface in a traditional European household with a much older brother and sister.
For high school and his undergraduate degree, he attended the Collège de Saint-Boniface, where he spoke English in the schoolyard, much to the consternation of his Jesuit teachers, who placed a premium of French being correctly spoken both in and out of class. He was also nearly expelled for smoking, confided his son, Justice Marc Monnin, one of Mr. Monnin’s two sons appointed to the Appeal Court once presided over by their father. (The other, Michel Monnin, is now working part-time as a supernumerary judge.)
“Ironic, isn’t it?” Justice Marc Monnin said. “The rules were there for us. We had to speak French. But you felt he was working the stern side because he really liked to tease people and had a great ability to put people at ease.”
After completing a BA in Latin philosophy in 1939, Mr. Monnin decided to become a lawyer because, at the end of the Great Depression, there was a dearth of them and he rightly figured there would be a need at one point in the near future.
“As it happened, the war came,” he told University of Manitoba law professor Darcy MacPherson in a wide-ranging interview in 2012. “At the end of the war, there was as much work as we wanted and as much work as we could do. So that’s that. That’s how I got here.”
Around the same time he started to study law, he joined the Canadian Forces, staying put long enough to marry Denise Pelletier in January, 1943, before being deployed to Europe. Arriving just after D-Day, he fought for the next two years in Normandy, Belgium and Holland, part of an Allied campaign he was reluctant to speak about afterward, no matter how his sons, or strangers, pestered him for answers.
“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.