Memorable Manitobans: Leon Mitchell (1916-1987)
Born in Poland on 1 December 1916, the youngest of five children, he emigrated in 1921 with his family to Winkler, Manitoba where they Anglicized their surname, which had been Mochan. His parents operated a general store while he attended the Winkler School to grade 11. He was forced to quit school to work when the family store went bankrupt during the Great Depression. Stricken by Guillain-Barre Syndrome in 1940, he completed grade 12 later that year. In 1946, he entered the University of Manitoba while serving as business agent for the Federation of Civic Employees from 1944 to 1956.
In 1950, he served as President of the Winnipeg Labour Council and, later that year, was admitted to the Manitoba Law School, interrupting his studies due to recurrence of Guillain-Barre Syndrome that left him confined to a wheelchair. After finishing his legal education in 1954, and articling to Montague Israels, he started a private law practice in the McLaren Hotel, serving what was, by then, CUPE Local 500 and individual clients associated with that Union. He became the first lawyer in Manitoba to practice labour relations exclusively on the union side. He was joined in 1955 by Sid Green in the law partnership of Mitchell & Green, with offices in the Confederation Building.
Mitchell was a founding member of the provincial New Democratic Party and nominated his law partner, Sid Green, to be its leader but the position was ultimately filled by Ed Schreyer. When the NDP won the 1969 general election, Green became a cabinet minister and the firm of Mitchell, Green & Minuk (Sam Minuk had joined in the 1960s) was disbanded. In 1970, Mitchell became a Queen’s Counsel and was appointed to the Commission of Inquiry into Churchill Forest Industries. He also served on the Winnipeg Municipal Board and the Mental Review Board.
He took an active interest in the study and improvement of the processes, alternative to litigation, by which industrial and other disputes could be settled on a fair and durable basis. In 1975, he became the mediator for the Northern Flood Agreement concerning reparation to native peoples for damage to lands and traditional ways of life caused by northern hydroelectric developments. He was significantly involved in the Mediation Institute of Seattle and the Society of Professionals in Dispute Resolution in Washington, DC.
In 1976, he was appointed Deputy Chair of the Public Service Staff Relations Board at Ottawa, from which he retired back to Winnipeg in 1982. He was a member of the Board of Governors of the University of Manitoba until 1978. He completed his working life at the firm of Taylor Brazzell McCaffrey, as Vice-Chair of the Manitoba Labour Board, and as the sole commissioner on the Treaty Land Entitlement Commission.
Mitchell was known for his generosity, off-beat sense of humour, Groucho-esque eyebrows which he could use with great force when questioning witnesses, intensity and boundless energy, love of reason, belief in human equality, and an ever-present cigar. In 1946, he married nurse Jean Margaret Leslie (1921-1981), daughter of W. R. Leslie of Morden, Manitoba. They had two children, Grant Mitchell and April Mitchell Katz.
He died on 28 February 1987.
“Government appoints 14 new Queen’s Counsels,” Winnipeg Free Press, 1 January 1970, page 18.
Obituary [Jean Margaret Leslie Mitchell], Winnipeg Free Press, 30 July 1981, page 64.
“Lawyer Mitchell dies,” Winnipeg Free Press, 2 March 1987, page 3.
Leon Mitchell QC Prize, University of Manitoba.
This page was prepared by Grant Mitchell QC and Gordon Goldsborough.
Page revised: 18 October 2015