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Jean-Gabriel Castel was born in Nice, France, on Sept. 17, 1928, the only child of Charles Castel and Simone Ricour.Handout

Slight, with dark hair and a guarded smile, Jean-Gabriel Castel started to work for the French Resistance when he was 15 years old, a teen involved in clandestine activities such as booby-trapping a bridge with nails and eavesdropping on the SS officers who were using his mother’s estate as a base. They spoke freely assuming he had no clue what they were saying, but in fact he had learned German from a nanny.

The boy would grow up to become a much-lauded legal scholar and mentor on both the Canadian and international stages, but never forgot the soundtrack of war: the gunshots, the fierce barking of dogs and screams. It was seared into him, alongside memories of the cruelty people showed each other, of being dragged into a bathroom so SS soldiers could assure themselves he was not a Jew, and the constant, gnawing hunger.

Afterwards, he made sure to forge a life path dictated by reason and compassion, at once a raconteur and introvert, a man who tended to declaim when he settled on a topic but was able to listen and change his mind when presented with an argument that was impeccably researched and planned out.

“He was a Renaissance man, an intellectual with a soft, caring side,” said his wife, Ann Lynn Henney-Castel. “He never could believe the inhumanity of people toward others, not back then and not today. He was so discouraged that no one wants to sit down and talk.”

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Jean-Gabriel Castel started to work for the French Resistance when he was 15 years old.Handout

Dr. Castel was the recently minted editor of the Canadian Bar Review when Harry Arthurs first met him in 1959. Ensconced in a large corner office at York University’s Osgoode Hall Law School, surrounded by shelves crammed with books and piles of papers, he radiated such an aura of age and experience that it seemed like he had been there for years.

“I thought he must have been so much older than me because of his position,” said Dr. Arthurs, who would go on to serve stints as dean of the law school and president of York itself. “But I learned he had only recently earned his doctorate from Harvard, albeit after a decade of advanced study and professional formation in both France and the U.S.”

Former prime minister Brian Mulroney, whom Dr. Castel taught during a stint at Laval University in Quebec City, called his old professor a “classic teacher and fine man who was sharp and appreciated arguments that were precise.”

On Dec. 30, Dr. Castel died in hospital, surrounded by family. He had wakened Ms. Henney just after midnight the day before in distress, convinced he was having a heart attack. Tests showed his mitral valve, responsible for regulating blood flow from the upper left chamber of the heart into the lower left chamber, had given way; there was nothing to do but wait for the end.

He was 95 years old.

Jean-Gabriel Castel was born in Nice, France, on Sept. 17, 1928, the only child of Charles Castel and Simone Ricour. His mother was trained as a nurse, perhaps giving him an understanding of the importance of service to others early in his life. His father owned an olive oil business and, three years after the war ended, organized in the city what has been called the first-ever jazz festival of international significance, with Louis Armstrong and his All-Stars as the inaugural headliners.

Young Jean got to meet Mr. Armstrong, who, in that great rumbly voice, asked to hear him sing. As a grown-up, Dr. Castel always loved to share what the jazz great told him after he had warbled a few bars: “You should come to the States and become a singer.”

Just as he was entering grade school, young Jean’s parents split up. The father ultimately ended up living in Paris; years later, after doing an undergraduate degree in mathematics, philosophy and experimental sciences at the University of Aix-Marseille, the son would follow. There, in 1950, he completed a law degree at the Université Paris I (Panthéon-Sorbonne) in 1950. But a mere law degree, and a career spent with a firm, was not what he yearned for, not after what he had experienced as a teenager in the war. He needed more, a pursuit of justice that transcended borders, and he decided to do a doctorate in comparative law.

He’d become a professor, he thought, and with a specialty in international law. To that end, he was awarded a prestigious Fulbright scholarship and boarded a passenger ship bound for New York.

On Aug. 19, 1950, as the ship steamed into New York’s harbour, he caught his first glimpse of the Statue of Liberty and began to cry. This would be a new start, he determined, and a new life in a new, post-war world where anything was possible.

The next three years were spent at the University of Michigan, where he studied at the law school in preparation for a doctorate in juridical science, which he completed at Harvard University in 1958 while on a scholarship.

During this time, his interest in both international law and antitrust policy drew him to the United Nations in New York; he even visited the home of former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt in Hyde Park, N.Y., to discuss human rights law, a subject both were passionate about.

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Throughout his life in Canada, along with the promotion of French, Dr. Castel fiercely defended the rights of francophones, including helping those in Ontario win the right to receive legal services in French.Handout

In 1953, Dr. Castel met his first wife, Jane Ellen Faris. After more than a quarter century of marriage and three children, they divorced. Seven years later, in 1986, he married Ms. Henney-Castel; they had one son, who followed his father into the law.

Although Dr. Castel articled with New York governor Thomas Dewey, he realized anew that the practice of law was not for him. So, in 1954, he accepted a position as a lecturer at McGill University in Montreal, a city that attracted him both because of its Gallic history and the myth of the little log cabin in the woods.

“Jean loved the countryside,” Ms. Henney-Castel said. “He was just as comfortable cutting trees as he was with books.”

The position at McGill lasted five years, after which he decamped for Osgoode. There, he convinced the administration to create a course on the civil law of France and Quebec so students could learn about the Roman-based jurisprudence upon which the laws of many countries are based. He also took over the editorship of the respected Canadian Bar Review, transforming it into a bilingual and bi-jural publication that was a must-read around the world.

“It wasn’t easy to do,” Dr. Arthurs said. “Academics have an interest in theory and history while practitioners wanted to read about that. It was a sometimes-precarious balancing act, with the bar association and Jean battling for editorial control.”

In 1959, Dr. Castel became a Canadian citizen. Throughout his life in Canada, along with the promotion of French, he fiercely defended the rights of francophones, including helping those in Ontario win the right to receive legal services in French.

A supporter of free trade and globalization, from 1979 to 1990, he arbitrated investment disputes under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), while his oeuvre includes several legal textbooks, including 1991′s Canadian Law and Practice of International Trade, and more than 100 scholarly and professional articles that were published in various languages, from French and English to Spanish and even Japanese.

When he retired from teaching in 2007, in his honour, York University established an annual conference on international law and organizations.

In 2006, Dr. Castel was elected to the municipal council of tiny Mono, Ont., where he lived with his family amid dramatic escarpments and tree-covered rolling hills.

Dr. Castel garnered a slew of honours, including being named an officer of the Order of Canada in 1985 and an officer of France’s Légion d’honneur in 2013.

As a husband, father and grandfather, he loved hard, with the kind intensity that comes from knowing what it is to have lost those who are close. Besides his wife, Dr. Castel leaves his three sons, John Christopher, Marc François and Matthew; his daughter, Maria Nicole; seven grandchildren and one great-granddaughter.

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