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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

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.

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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.

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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."

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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.

'A love of provoking argument'

Prof. Mandel defied orthodoxy at every turn. He taught that the law was far from being fair and equal, but was instead an instrument carefully calibrated by elites to serve their interests and maintain their positions of class privilege. He saw judges as high priests appointed to maintain the political status quo and punish those without resources or social connections.

Affable and irreverent, Prof. Mandel defied the popular stereotype of the humourless socialist. When excoriating Supreme Court of Canada judgments, he often referred to Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin as "Bev Mac."

Exam questions were similarly laconic and to the point, such as the one a former student recalled recently: "Which one of the following two decisions is worse, and why?"

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The 1982 Charter of Rights and Freedoms embodied what Prof. Mandel detested most about the legal system. He saw it as an anti-democratic shell masquerading as a crucible of equality and human rights.

Prof. Mandel alleged that the Charter had systematically devastated the country's political system. Judges had been granted the right to make decisions that ought to belong in the sphere of elected officials, he said, effectively "legalizing" the political system.

In his book, The Charter of Rights and the Legalization of Politics in Canada, Prof. Mandel wrote: "The meaningless phrases in the Charter were willfully and outrageously manipulated by highly political judges who feigned independence but were actually in cahoots with the country's wealthy elites."

Prof. Sossin observed that the Charter was so beloved in its early years that Prof. Mandel's views were considered outright heretical. "He had a love of provoking argument and he intentionally confronted ideas," Prof. Sossin said. "If you adopted a different principle, he could debate you all year long."

While colleagues did not see Prof. Mandel as being doctrinaire – in fact, he had a mischievous, playful streak – jousting with him was not for everybody.

"No matter what the issue, Michael was dynamic, forceful and unrelenting in defending his principles," said Osgoode law professor Jamie Cameron. "I valued and respected him greatly for that. Setting yourself apart from others because it is important to stand up for what you believe in requires strength and courage.

"Michael Mandel was not just a warrior," Prof. Cameron said, "but a happy warrior who drew on great reserves of charm and energy to protect the principles he cared about so much."

Another faculty colleague, Bruce Ryder, recalled Prof. Mandel as "an inspiring and provocative firebrand. He reliably spoke truth to power with searing clarity. I'll miss his astringency, and his sense of humour. Whether you agreed with him or not, it was always good fun debating with Michael."

Anti-war activism, at home and abroad

A member of the left-leaning Law Union of Ontario, Prof. Mandel's early causes included criminal sanctions and prisoners' rights.

In his later years, he became immersed in the global anti-war movement. He denounced the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and travelled to The Hague with a group he had helped launch, Lawyers Against the War, to accuse the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia of being a sham.

More than once, Prof. Mandel made headlines by insisting that U.S. officials were "thugs" who ought to be prosecuted for war crimes, a thesis he developed into a book: How America Gets Away With Murder.

He spent increasing amounts of time in Israel, falling in love with the country and using its academic podiums to voice his strong opposition to the plight of Palestinians.

His interest in Israel grew out of his marriage to Ms. Golden, a Toronto lawyer and committed Zionist who is fluent in Hebrew. The couple became active in the Israeli peace movement during a year they spent in Jerusalem while Prof. Mandel was a visiting professor at Hebrew University.

In his own words, Prof. Mandel "moderated" his views on Israeli politics as a result of being immersed in Israeli society and culture, but he maintained his vocal opposition to what he saw as unnecessary and illegal aggression against its neighbours.

His love of art and music drew Prof. Mandel to Italy. He roamed museums throughout the country and studied singing, still finding time to write a book on the Italian constitution, The Unbearable Flexibility of the Statuto Albertino.

He also taught law at several major Italian universities, ran the University of Bologna's student exchange program, and performed Yiddish music for the country's Jewish communities.

One of Prof. Mandel's last campaigns involved a campus battle against a major prospective donor – technology magnate Jim Balsillie – who had pledged tens of millions of dollars to create almost a dozen chairs of study and research at Osgoode.

Prof. Mandel viewed it as an intrusion on the law school's independence. In a self-styled "obituary" he wrote shortly before his death, he expressed satisfaction with having helped "save Osgoode from being bought."

It was vintage Mandel, Prof. Sossin observed. "Most people are willing to shave a little off their principles to get to a resolution, but that wasn't Michael," he said. "Michael certainly rubbed some people the wrong way, but he saw that as the cost of doing business."

Harmony between music and socialist politics

At home, Prof. Mandel strove to inculcate his love of art and music into his children, delivering each one to music lessons throughout their youth. He played trumpet and sang in operatic productions in Canada and Italy.

Max Mandel, now a world-class chamber violist who lives in New York, said his father taught him that a subtle sense of harmony unites socialist politics and music. "He saw music as being something that doesn't exploit anybody," Mr. Mandel said. "And making music gives something meaningful to the world."

Although drawn to Jewish culture, traditions and history, Prof. Mandel remained a lifelong atheist who did not believe in an afterlife. At the age of six, Max Mandel recalled, he asked his father if he believed in God.

"No, but you can if you want to," Prof. Mandel replied benignly.

In later life, Prof. Mandel spent long periods poring over archives in order to reconstruct his father's musical career and love of Yiddish folk music. And he never missed a chance to restate his leftist beliefs and express loathing for those who exploited the vulnerable or waged war.

Prof. Mandel leaves his wife, Karen, and their children Tevi and Orly; and his ex-wife, Carole Mandel, and their children Max, Giulia and Lucy.

The unique place and time that forged Prof. Mandel may well render him irreplaceable on Osgoode's faculty, Prof. Sossin lamented.

"But I would happily take the risk of having a colleague like Michael who takes strong stands," he said. "Especially if he can sing like Michael."

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