Lawyer and law professor Roland Penner became involved in Manitoba’s New Democratic Party in 1977 by chance, when a friend needed someone to nominate him. That twist of fate led him to become a key figure in the administration of justice in his home province and a champion of equal rights.
As Manitoba’s attorney-general for much of the 1980s, he was tasked with aligning the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms with provincial law. He fought hard to make sexual orientation a prohibited ground for discrimination, making Manitoba one of the first provinces with such a law. His daughter Kathy Penner says, “He could see queer rights as an emerging issue. ... He saw injustice wherever it was.”
At other times, his views were seen as not progressive enough. Feminist Judy Rebick berated Mr. Penner for not intervening in the prosecution of Dr. Henry Morgentaler after the abortion provider opened a clinic in Winnipeg. Mr. Penner explained in his memoir A Glowing Dream that as attorney-general, he was bound to respect the abortion laws, but unofficially hoped for a Supreme Court challenge.
Mr. Penner’s sense of social responsibility and his optimism, for which he was known throughout his life, were also what led him, at the age of 93, to hurt his ankle when shovelling snow while trying to make it to a bridge match. This injury led to a decline in his health and to his death in Winnipeg on May 31.
Roland Penner was born in Winnipeg on July 30, 1924, to two leftists from the former Russian Empire. His lapsed Mennonite father, Jacob Penner, had fled to Canada after his factory in Riga failed. Roland’s mother, Rosie Shapak, was a secular Jew from the Odessa area. An orphan, she and her twin, Bertha, were mistreated by their stepmother in the manner of a Grimms’ fairy tale.
Jacob and Rosie met at a speech by anarchist Emma Goldman. The two began a family without “bourgeois marriage,” although they wed in 1930. Jacob led union marches and became a Winnipeg alderman in 1933, remaining one for three decades. Jacob also worked as a florist and sold candy.
Roland’s childhood was not one of luxury. The Penners moved frequently between rentals, often at night to dodge landlords, Kathy says.
His older brother Alfred had Down’s syndrome and was bullied, then institutionalized, before dying of measles in 1930. Another brother, Norman Penner, was a child speaker at union rallies and later a professor of political science at York University.
Roland attended Luxton and St. John’s High schools in Winnipeg. He was so close to his twin sister, Ruth, says her daughter, filmmaker and activist Cathy Gulkin. “The two had to avoid eye contact with each other in class, or they would start giggling uncontrollably.”
When war broke out, he tried to become a tail gunner, but was thwarted when an officer recognized him and said the Air Force “did not accept communists.” He joined the Army and was assigned to the artillery, taking part in the offensive at Arnhem.
After Germany surrendered, Roland ran into Norman in Paris. The brothers went to see Picasso, who offered them a painting for US$50 – a sum they could not scrape together. “It wouldn’t have mattered if they had bought it,” Ms. Gulkin says. “For decades after the war, they were both so poor it would have been sold to pay a utility bill.”
Mr. Penner took a bachelor’s degree at the University of Manitoba. There he met Addie Wdoviak, who was training as a social worker. The couple married in 1949, the year he graduated.
He worked at a furniture store then ran a bookstore for the Communist Party. It was hard for either to find work because of their politics. “It was the McCarthy Era and they were blacklisted,” his son Dan Penner says.
Mr. Penner also managed concerts, bringing acts such as Odetta and Pete Seeger to Winnipeg. He presented the Bolshoi Ballet before a sellout crowd, but as a condition, was also required to book Sergey Obraztsov’s puppet troupe. Sales were low and Mr. Penner left the impresario business. He was involved in other commercial failures, including the manufacture of fibreglass boats.
Meanwhile, Mr. Penner unionized employees, standing outside plants in the dead of Winnipeg winter, handing out leaflets until his fingers froze.
As a father, he relished dimming the lights and telling ghost stories by the fireplace. Mr. Penner was remarkable in other ways, though. When one of his children had a question, he encouraged them to look up the answer in the stacks of books that were a feature of their home. And, Kathy Penner says, the family could not go to the United States because of his communist affiliations. The travel ban was only lifted when Mr. Penner became Manitoba’s attorney-general.
Enrolling in law school at the University of Manitoba in 1957, Mr. Penner articled with Joe Zuken, a lawyer and long-serving communist politician. After the Soviet invasion of Hungary and Khrushchev’s revelations about Stalin’s atrocities, Mr. Penner resigned from the party. His parents remained “devout communists, almost like Catholics loyal to a Holy Soviet Union,” Ms. Gulkin says. Despite the ideological break, they remained close.
After being called to the bar, Mr. Penner started a private practice. Dan Penner recalls that when his father “did criminal law, we had much fancier cars than you’d expect. He would get them because his clients couldn’t pay cash. One of the cars was probably used in a break-in at a supermarket.”
Mr. Penner began teaching law at the University of Manitoba in 1967. He was founding chair of Legal Aid Manitoba in 1972 – the year he became a Queen’s Counsel – and oversaw the program’s rapid expansion. Although a law professor, Mr. Penner never stopped being a labour organizer and worked to unionize university faculty.
As a teacher, he spoke with the resonant voice which, in his youth, he had used in leftist theatre. Winnipeg lawyer and former alderman Lawrie Cherniack took several law classes from Mr. Penner and later helped run one of his campaigns. Mr. Cherniack remembers him as “an excellent teacher, able to explain difficult legal subjects like evidence and criminal law by getting to their essence.” With his refined sense of humour, Mr. Penner “was an absolute presence. He would dominate conversation, not by speaking, sometimes, but just by being there.” Dan Penner agrees, saying Roland could “be overbearing and pontificating” in a group of adults.
Then-premier Edward Schreyer (who later became governor-general), encouraged Mr. Penner to run as an MLA in 1977. He did not do so at the time, but ran for the NDP in 1981 for the Fort Rouge constituency and was elected, becoming attorney-general and head of the Treasury Board in premier Howard Pawley’s cabinet.
Mr. Penner became involved romantically with fellow law faculty member Janet Baldwin. He and Addie separated, divorcing in 1982. Although nearly 60, he and Ms. Baldwin started his second family. “Family was so important to him throughout his life,” his daughter Anna Penner says, “whether it was his parents and siblings, or children and grandchildren.”
Anna remembers visiting the legislature as a child. “I took it for granted that he was present as a father, telling stories and playing hide and seek. I never thought this was unusual for a 65-year-old politician. But he was always there.” In his later years in cabinet, when he was minister of education, bureaucrats joked he was the only MLA collecting both an old-age pension and child benefits.
After Mr. Penner lost his seat in 1988, he joked about his return to teaching, “I don’t know how I’m going to get used to doing half as much work for twice the pay.”
Mr. Penner was named a member of the Order of Canada in 2000, and retired from the University of Manitoba in 2009.
He leaves his twin sister, Ruth Penner; first wife, Addie Wdoviak; their children, Dan Penner, Kathy Penner and Paul Penner; second wife, Janet Baldwin; their daughters, Anna Penner and Pen Penner; and stepchildren, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story had an incorrect name for Mr. Penner’s riding. This version has been corrected.