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Tuesday December 20, 2016

A passionate defender of human rights

An MP for more than three decades, he learned how to get things done but never abandoned his principles, colleagues say

Special to The Globe and Mail

Warren Allmand championed myriad causes during his decades as a politician and human-rights advocate, but of all his accomplishments, he may be best remembered for his successful effort to abolish capital punishment, which he called "immoral and useless."

In 1976, when Mr. Allmand was solicitor-general in prime minister Pierre Trudeau's cabinet, Canada had not held an execution since December 1962, but the law was still on the books. Mr. Allmand argued that maintaining the legislation, which was not being carried out, was hypocritical. He felt that allowing the judiciary and federal cabinet to have the power to decide a person's fate was not in line with Canadian values.

Though polls suggested 70 per cent of Canadians supported the death penalty at the time, Mr. Allmand ignored his opponents and tabled a bill to abolish it.

The bill was put to a free vote and narrowly passed, 131 to 124, with a third of caucus voting against it.

This was just one example of Mr. Allmand sticking to his principles when so many voices opposed him. In a speech a year later, he said the death penalty "must be fought and defeated if we are to become a world society in which our descendants can live in peace and justice."

Mr. Allmand upheld this ideal throughout his career, lending his voice to everything from the fight for civil liberties in the post-Sept. 11 "war on terror" to the struggles for the rights of women and indigenous people.

Mr. Allmand died in Notre Dame Hospital in Montreal on Dec. 7, after being diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumour in February. He was 84.

Mr. Allmand, who spent more than three decades in Parliament before seamlessly easing into civil society, was one of those rare people with a combination of rock-solid principles and practical insider knowledge of how to work within government, said Alex Neve, secretarygeneral of Amnesty International Canada.

"He had that grounding in the real world and the practicality of politics but without compromise," Mr. Neve recalled. "I don't know how he did it."

Mr. Allmand ran in nine-consecutive federal elections to represent the Montreal riding of Notre-Dame-de-Grâce, and won them all, even when his Liberal Party didn't. He became a city councillor in 2005 - seven years after leaving federal politics - after working on Montreal's Charter of Rights and Responsibilities.

His campaign flyer from his first run for office in 1965 described him as a resident, community worker, athlete, scholar and internationalist. He continued to be all those things 50 years later, also playing hockey three times a week, until last fall.

"He was so deeply rooted in his community but also acted globally," said Désirée McGraw, a resident of Mr. Allmand's former riding, who said he was her role model. "There was no issue too small for him and no issue too big."

Born Sept. 19, 1932, William Warren Allmand was the eldest child of the former Rose Irene McMorrow and Harold Allmand, who eventually had three more children. Young Warren grew up in Montreal's Mile End neighbourhood during the Great Depression. His father was laid off twice from his job as a railway man with Canadian Pacific Railway and Mr. Allmand once told an interviewer that he remembered classmates going to school shoeless and people knocking on his family's door seeking work in exchange for food.

After graduating from Loyola High School, he studied economics at St. Francis Xavier University then went to law school at McGill University. He was admitted to the Quebec Bar in 1958.

A passionate, indefatigable defender of the rights of all, he saw the absurdity of war and became a pacifist at an early age. Once elected, he was the quintessential public servant - passionately working for his constituents, whether it was fighting in Parliament for national unity or, as municipal councillor, resisting the name change of a Montreal street. (Mr. Allmand, whose grandfather had been a streetcar driver on Montreal's Park Avenue, staunchly opposed a proposal decades later to rename the thoroughfare in honour of former Quebec premier Robert Bourassa.)

He believed that Canada's treatment of aboriginal people was the biggest stain on the country's human-rights record and as Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Affairs, he made a point of visiting far-flung communities and connecting with residents.

Former colleagues say he could be rigid, irascible and earnest, but was always honest and true to his convictions. He didn't always toe the party line and at times was penalized as a result. He voted against former prime minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau's cherished Constitution Act in 1982 because he couldn't support its notwithstanding clause. And in 1995 he voted against former prime minister Jean Chrétien's program-slashing budget, arguing it went against the Liberals' election promises.

Mr. Allmand felt deeply betrayed after learning that evidence against aboriginal activist Leonard Peltier, who was extradited to the United States on his watch as solicitor-general, was tainted - and some outright fabricated. He worked tirelessly to right that wrong. In 2000, he and other human rights activists unsuccessfully sought clemency for Mr. Peltier, who was convicted of murder following the shooting deaths of two FBI agents. They appealed again to outgoing U.S. President Barack Obama to pardon the ailing 72year-old prisoner.

It's a testament to Mr. Allmand's ability to lead and inspire that so many feel determined to continue this fight and other causes the long-time MP held dear.

"I'm feeling this extra responsibility to make sure that Warren's voice is there right alongside mine as I'm making pleas to politicians," Mr. Neve said.

He spent his little down time with his three children, skiing near their country place in Quebec's Eastern Townships with his first wife, Pat Burns. That marriage was annulled, and 14 years ago he married Rosemary Nolan, whom he met through his work on the Irish peace process. He was interested in theatre, music and dance, taught human rights at McGill, was a regular at the Westmount YMCA and a fervent runner and Boston Red Sox fan. Just two years ago, he ran a half-marathon with his son.

"What kept him going was he was physically active," Ms. Nolan said. "He'd get up at 7:30 and would have a list of things to do for the day, then go to bed at midnight."

Mr. Allmand was ahead of the curve when it came to gun control, and as a backbencher in 1971, introduced a bill to limit access to all guns including those used for hunting.

After the 1989 shooting tragedy at Montreal's École Polytechnique, Mr. Allmand reached out to the affected students to support their efforts for tougher gun control, according to Heidi Rathjen, a witness to the massacre.

"As recent graduates with no experience in politics whatsoever, Warren's gesture was incredibly important to us," recalled Ms. Rathjen, also a long-time gun-control advocate. "His confidence in our ability to make a difference and his guidance through Parliament's procedures and protocols were determining factors in our continued involvement in the fight for tougher gun control."

Mr. Allmand never wavered from his long-held stance in favour of gun control, even when pressure from the gun lobby was particularly fierce, Ms. Rathjen said.

After decades on the Hill, he headed the International Centre for Human Rights and International Development (also known as Rights and Democracy), the International Civil Liberties Monitoring Group and the World Federalist Movement.

While with Rights and Democracy, he was active in the development of the International Criminal Court and the International Declaration of Rights of Indigenous People. As a result of his pushing for legislation to try war criminals in Canada, Rwandan Désiré Munyaneza was convicted here in 2009 for participating in his country's genocide.

"[Mr. Allmand] had the public good as his overriding concern at all times," said former Liberal MP Irwin Cotler, whose friendship with Mr. Allmand spanned half a century. "No cause was too menial for him and he was at the forefront of trying to do good in whatever way he was able.

"When we think of what citizenship is all about, Warren was a model citizen."

He was the recipient of the World Federalist Movement Canada's World Peace Award in 1990 and was named a member of the Order of Canada in July, 2000.

Patricia Poirier worked with Mr. Allmand at Rights and Democracy, then again later with the International Civil Liberties Monitoring Group, where he championed the cause of Maher Arar.

Ms. Poirier described him as a "character" who never quite mastered the Internet, preferring to write longhand on a particular type of paper.

The two would drive to Ottawa together, Mr. Allmand picking up his passenger late at night after his hockey game and regaling her with tales from the political trenches.

"He talked about his children and despite the fact he was very focused on his work all the time, he would ask about my children and would remember what they were doing," she said.

A man of action, Mr. Allmand lived by the motto "better to light a candle than curse the darkness," and that is the guiding principle he left for humanrights defenders following in his footsteps. Everyone, Mr. Neve said, is talking about carrying his torch.

"His memory will be my strength," Mr. Neve said. "I don't think there are a lot of people who pass away with that being their gift to humanity and it's a remarkable one."

Mr. Allmand leaves his wife, Rose Nolan; son, Patrick; daughters, Julie and Robin and granddaughter, Arisawe. He also leaves his sisters, Patricia French and Alice Leclerc and his brother, Harold.

To submit an I Remember: obit@globeandmail.com Send us a memory of someone we have recently profiled on the Obituaries page. Please include I Remember in the subject field.

Associated Graphic

Then-northern affairs minister Mr. Allmand, left, is presented with the Report of the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Inquiry - which he would later table in the House of Commons - by Justice Thomas Berger, in 1977.

Warren Allmand served as the solicitor-general in former prime minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau's cabinet in the 1970s, during which time he tabled a bill that eliminated the legality of capital punishment in Canada. Mr. Allmand had a reputation for his idealism, which found him at odds with Mr. Trudeau from time to time.

PAT ZAKAIB

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