Former Manitoba attorney general, LGBTQ champion Roland Penner dies

The former MLA who introduced the province's Human Rights Code and championed the inclusion of sexual orientation as a protected status in that code has died.

Penner introduced Manitoba's Human Rights Code, fought to include sexual orientation as protected status

Roland Penner, who served in cabinet as part of Manitoba's NDP government throughout the 1980s, died on Thursday. (Gordon Goldsborough/Manitoba Historical Society)

A former Manitoba MLA and attorney general who introduced the province's Human Rights Code and championed the inclusion of sexual orientation as a protected status in that code has died.

Roland Penner died late Thursday at the age of 93, said his daughter Anna Penner, due to complications after he broke his ankle.

He represented the Winnipeg riding of Fort Rouge from 1981 through 1988 under premier Howard Pawley.

Penner served in many roles during his time as an NDP MLA, but he is well-remembered for his work as attorney general.

His contributions to Manitoba's Human Rights Code were a "huge step" for the province, said Jim Rondeau, former NDP MLA for Assiniboia and Manitoba's first openly gay MLA.

"Roland Penner was able to make a huge leap ... allowing people to have equal rights. He was a national leader, a provincial leader," Rondeau said.

It allowed me to be honest.... I thank him very much for that.- Jim Rondeau

"Yes, we followed up afterwards and passed the equal rights laws as far as adoption, as far as marriage, as far as housing. But this was the first big step."

Penner's work was instrumental in allowing those in the gay community to come out of the closet, said Rondeau, who is also a former teacher.

"It allowed me to be honest," said Rondeau. "Not being afraid of losing my job, not being afraid of being able to apply for housing … and not face discrimination. Roland Penner set it up so that people could be who they are," he said.

"Prior to that, you had to be in the closet. You could not have a relationship and be out with your spouse, you could not bring your spouse to any event. In other words, you had to have a second life.

"I thank him very much for that."

Premier Brian Pallister tweeted his condolences Saturday. 

"Roland was the kind of leader that comes along once in a generation, and we are all blessed to have known him," Manitoba NDP Leader Wab Kinew said in a written statement Saturday.

"His legacy of service to our country as a veteran of World War II, and as a lawyer and elected representative dedicated to social justice will not soon be forgotten," Kinew said, noting that it seemed appropriate during Pride Week to acknowledge Penner's work to promote the rights of LGBTQ people.

"Miigwech Roland for everything," Kinew wrote.

Penner's career

Penner was born in Winnipeg on July 30, 1924 and was the son of Winnipeg alderman Jacob Penner and Rose Shapack, according to his obituary. He joined the military at age 19 and served in Europe during the Second World War. Upon his return, he earned a bachelor of arts at the University of Manitoba and in later years, a bachelor of laws.

He spent his early career teaching and worked at the U of M starting in 1967, becoming a full professor in 1972. 

He was also the former president of Legal Aid Manitoba, the Canadian Association of University Teachers and served as dean at the U of M's faculty of law for five years.

He was elected as an NDP MLA in 1981 and served in numerous roles, including attorney general, chair of the treasury board, government House leader, and at different points in cabinet as the minister of education, constitutional affairs, and consumer and corporate affairs.

After losing his seat during the NDP government's election defeat in 1988, he returned to teaching at the U of M.

He authored three books, including a biography of Hugh Amos Robson, the founder of the Manitoba Law School.

He won several awards in his lifetime, including being appointed Queen's Counsel and named to the Order of Canada and the Order of Manitoba, and won the Canadian Bar Association's Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Community Ally Award.

Family life

Siblings Paul and Kathy Penner said family was extremely important to their father. They described him as fiercely intelligent and engaged. 

"Great dad. Always so outgoing," said Paul. "But we, as his children, felt his love and support, always."

Kathy remembers stimulating conversation around the dinner table about current events, adding she realized quite quickly that some of her father's perspectives weren't popular at the time. 

"I realized in retrospect just how much I learned from that, just sitting around the table and hearing my parents talk about the social justice-related issues that they were both passionate about.

"That really informed how we developed as adults."

While Kathy says she never became all that politically active, her father's legacy carries on in his children in "a quieter way."

"Having that perspective on the world, and how much is unjust in the world … my brothers and my sisters have always been aware that way."

Kathy said her family is proud Roland Penner's legacy helped change the lives of many Manitobans for the better.

"The impact he has on so many people … to feel safer to come out of the closet, or to be who they are, or to be more outspoken or to help protect other vulnerable people in their life, I think that's a huge legacy."

Penner is survived by his wife, Janet, first wife Addie, his twin sister Ruth, five children and numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Kathy said the family will have a private burial but a celebration of Penner's life will be organized, likely later this summer.