Photo: Yfile

York’s flags are flying at half mast to mark the death of law Professor Michael Mandel, who taught at Osgoode Hall Law School for 39 years. He died October 27 at the age of 65.

A man known for his infectious energy, humour, musicality and passion, Professor Mandel (LLB ’72) focused his scholarly pursuits on the law of war and international criminal law.

He was critical of Canada’s Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms, supported Palestinian rights and was a founding member of Lawyers Against the War in Afghanistan and Iraq. He frequently commented in the media on issues of war and peace.

Harry Arthurs was dean of Osgoode when he hired Michael Mandel to teach there in 1974. “Michael was a presence as a student,” remembers Arthurs, who later became president of York. “He had a lot of hair and was very outspoken about everything. He was a child of the 1960s in the best sense. He was a free spirit, he had progressive ideas, he was vocal, he was active. And he pretty much remained the same throughout his life.”

“As a scholar,” said Arthurs in an interview, “Michael took a lot of stances that were not conventional wisdom. He was a critic and was disrespectful of people in high office in a good-humoured way. It was never personal.”

Of his many publications, Professor Mandel is best known for two books: The Charter of Rights and the Legalization of Politics in Canada (1989) and How America Gets Away With Murder: Illegal Wars, Collateral Damage and Crimes Against Humanity (2004).

Professor Mandel taught a course on Marxism and the law, remembers Arthurs. “Not all members of the legal profession thought they should be instructed in Marxism, but I was pleased to defend Michael’s right to teach it in the name of freedom of expression. I wouldn’t say it was the most popular course at Osgoode.”

James Morton (LLB ’86) a lawyer and adjunct professor at Osgoode remembered his former professor fondly in a posting October 27 on his blog: “Michael was a part of Osgoode Hall that no one could ever forget. He would sing and always had a jovial greeting for everyone. His politics were radical beyond belief but on an interpersonal level he was a kind and generous man. As an academic he challenged students to think beyond the obvious. While I was unconvinced by a Marxist theory of law (or anything else for that matter) Professor Mandel made me reexamine my own biases — and this is pushing 30 years ago. His kind will not be seen again soon.”

“Michael had a way of weaving together the personal and the political and took some odd forms,” says Arthurs. He was a member of the Canadian Opera Company’s amateur chorus, which led to his scholarly interest in Italy. He lectured and taught at many of Italy’s universities and ran an exchange program for law students at Bologna from 1995 to 2001. He used to practise his opera chorus parts in his office. “That didn’t always make him popular with his neighbours,” says Arthurs.

When it seemed the Italian servers in the Osgoode cafeteria might lose their jobs, Professor Mandel took their cause to Senate, remembers Arthurs. “He burst into the Senate meeting demanding the University do something, even though Senate didn’t have the jurisdiction.”

In The Charter of Rights and the Legalization of Politics in Canada, Professor Mandel argued that the Charter would change the nature of Canadian politics by giving the courts, and especially the Supreme Court, a general superintendence over all aspects of government and by making debates about the constitution a dominant theme of Canadian political life. The phenomenon of “legal politics,” he believed, would transform the politics of language, crime, immigration, labour, business, race and gender. “He imagined the Charter would be used to sanitize politics and taken the steam out of any radical critique of the state,” said Arthurs.

In How America Gets Away With Murder, Professor Mandel was critical of America’s illegal wars and a war crimes system that granted America’s leaders an unjust and dangerous impunity. Political activist Noam Chomsky said of the book: “This closely reasoned and carefully documented study is sad and grim, and necessary. Unless its lessons are heeded by citizens of the rich and powerful states, the fate of the world will be left to the whim of those with the guns and the faith to enforce their will.”

Professor Mandel graduated from Osgoode in 1972 as a silver medalist and went on to earn a bachelor of civil law from Oxford University. He was a member of the Bar of Ontario.

He joined Osgoode’s faculty in 1974. He also taught in the native law program at the University of Saskatchewan, in the political science department at McMaster University and in the criminology department at the University of Toronto. He taught and lectured at several of Italy’s major universities. In 1998 he was a visiting professor at the Faculty of Law of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Professor Mandel predeceases his wife Karen, and children Max, Giulia, Lucy, Tevi and Orly. Memorial donations may be made to the Max and Hilda Mandel Memorial Fund at the Baycrest Center for Geriatric Care. A funeral was held October 28.

This piece originally appeared on Yfile and is reprinted with permisson.