Roland Penner - author, lawyer, retired politician and former Dean of Law at the University of Manitoba - remembers a quote from novelist Nancy Huston: “The scenes of our childhood form the seal of our identity.” The seeds of Penner’s political career, a celebrated one that brought about the first human rights legislation in Manitoba, were planted in his own childhood.
Born in 1924, Penner grew up in Winnipeg’s North End, which he describes as a community of “immigrants who came here to escape poverty or oppression.” Penner’s parents first met in Winnipeg at a reception for the famous feminist anarchist Emma Goldman in 1907.
“I was born into a household of people who were dedicated to the idea of socialism,” Penner recalls. “But importantly, it wasn’t that intensely a political household so much as a family that was concerned for the well-being of the working people. Both of my parents, without propagandizing us, set a standard of devotion to human rights and labour rights.”
By 1981, Penner had been appointed as Attorney General of Manitoba, which allowed him to further develop the Human Rights Act.
“To take into consideration issues of sexual orientation, I laid out a program and over my tenure in office I was able to fulfill most of what I spoke about at that time,” Penner points out.
Penner is also a former member of the Communist Party of Canada; he left the party “when the revelations about Stalin and what he had done came out.” Both him and his father were featured on an RCMP list of communist sympathizers. When Penner finally obtained the dossier, he found that the majority of the document had been “blacked out.”
He served in the Canadian artillery during World War II. He even met Picasso in Paris during the war, passing up a chance to purchase an original work by the artist. It’s a regret that still makes Penner chuckle.
“Here I am receiving the Order of Manitoba in 2014, speaking with the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall, who participated in the ceremony.”
2) Certificate of the Attorney General of Manitoba
“The role of the Attorney General in contemporary government is not only the person responsible for the prosecution of crimes, but also as a Minister of Justice responsible for such things as the Human Rights Commission, the legal aid service and other services related to the access of justice.”
3) Literary works
“I wrote my memoir in 2007. In 2009, I wrote a book with my colleague Norm Larsen called Tales from the Underground. And I did another one with a very dear friend, Dr. Jack Fainman about the time that he was shot, called They Shoot Doctors Don’t They. Right now, I am working on another one with Norm Larsen, which will be a collection of quotations from the Manitoba legal system dating back to early times.”
Published in Volume 69, Number 4 of The Uniter (September 24, 2014)