A Life Well Lived: Family, friends, colleagues bid farewell to Roland Penner
Of all the things he was in life, be it soldier, lawyer, activist, politician, or professor, Roland Penner, C.M., O.M., Q.C. [B.A./49, LL.B./61] was a Dad who loved his family very much, and a friend and humanist who cared very deeply about the rights and well-being of other people. This message was clear as family, friends and dignitaries each shared stories illustrating Penner’s legacy with a gathering of over 200 community members at his Celebration of Life held Thursday, August 23, 2018 at the Neil Bardal Funeral Centre.
Penner was 93 when he died on May 31, 2018, from complications following a broken ankle. He and his twin sister Ruth were born on July 30, 1924 to Jacob Penner and Rose Shapack, and raised in Winnipeg’s North End with their siblings. He served in Europe during the Second World War in the Canadian artillery, after which he completed a Bachelor of Arts degree at the University of Manitoba. After managing a bookstore on Winnipeg’s Main Street with his first wife Addie and promoting numerous folk music concerts (including Pete Seeger) in the 1950’s, he eventually completed an LL.B. degree at the U of M, and practiced criminal law at the office of Joe Zuken, a prominent city councilor and communist. While practicing law, Penner taught courses in constitutional law, criminal law, labour law, evidence, and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms at Robson Hall, the University of Manitoba’s Faculty of Law. Forging into politics in the 1980s, he was elected MLA and served in the Howard Pawley NDP government as Attorney General, where he introduced human rights legislation in Manitoba, championed the inclusion of sexual orientation as a prohibited ground of discrimination. After politics, Penner served as Dean of Law at Robson Hall, authored three books, and at the time of his death, was completing a biography of the Faculty of Law’s co-founder, Hugh Amos Robson.
Truly a celebration of life, the remarks brought were full of humour, laughter and joy, a counterpoint to the sadness of having lost this man who had meant so much to so many people. Formal tributes were paid by former Dean of Law, Trevor Anderson, who eloquently recounted Penner’s timeline of life. Former student Byron Williams (Director of Legal Aid’s Public Interest Law Centre) illustrated Penner’s dedication to social justice throughout his legal career, and Eugene Szach, former student, friend and assistant to Penner in his days as AG, recalled Penner’s career in government, and later being with Penner when he delivered his McNally Robinson Classroom lectures. Political comrades Wab Kinew (Penner’s successor as MLA for Fort Rouge), and former Winnipeg Mayor Glen Murray also spoke. Murray recalled working with Penner as his campaign manager, and the words of wisdom Penner gave him to forge ahead with gay rights activism: “You should organize!”
Each of his five children spoke movingly of him as a father and his twin sister Ruth shared some tales of childhood mischief and fun. Janet Baldwin, his wife and a retired member of our faculty, led the proceedings with wisdom and grace.
One recurring theme amongst the remarks of those who knew and loved Roland Penner was that he was full of wit and humour, stories and compassion, and that to remember his stories would be to keep his legacy alive.
More articles about Roland Penner:
- Faculty of Law mourns passing of Roland Penner, former Dean, senior scholar, alumnus
- CBC: Former Manitoba attorney general, LGBTQ champion Roland Penner dies
- CBC: Manitoba politicians, past and present, honour Roland Penner at Pride
- Winnipeg Free Press: Former attorney general Roland Penner dead at 93