Manitoba History: Review: A Glowing Dream: A Memoir by Roland Penner

by Nolan Reilly
History Department, University of Winnipeg

Number 60, February 2009

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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I regularly take students studying the history of Winnipeg to the Ukrainian Labour Temple on Pritchard Avenue in Winnipeg’s North End. Standing in the Labour Temple’s main hall, a room steeped in the history of the city’s immigrant political and cultural struggles, I read to them a passage from Norman Penner’s oral history interview on growing up in the North End. It is a particularly evocative description of his teenage years at St. John’s Technical High School, which he described as “a radical’s paradise.” Inevitably, at this point students want to learn more about the North End. I have now another place to which I may send them: Roland Penner’s memoir, A Glowing Dream. Roland Penner, who has spent almost his entire life in Winnipeg, is the younger brother of Norman. Their father Jacob, who arrived in Winnipeg from present day Ukraine in 1904, was of those rare breed of Marxist socialists whose origins lay in a devote Mennonite upbringing. Three years later, he met Rose Shapack “a young, fiery-tempered, non-religious Jewish radical”, also a recent arrival from Europe. They were introduced to one another at a rally at the James Street Labour Temple featuring “Red Emma” Goldman, the famous American anarchist and feminist. This was the beginning of the history of the “Red Penners.” A Glowing Dream: A Memoir is Roland Penner’s account of and reflection on his family’s history, especially the remarkable record of political engagement that made the Red Penners one of Winnipeg’s most prominent families on the left in the twentieth century.

A Glowing Dream will appeal to a diversity of readers. Penner’s account of his years as a cabinet minister in Howard Pawley’s NDP government, including Penner’s lengthy account of his direct engagement in some of the most controversial political issues of the 1980s (constitutional debates, passage of the Human Rights Code, Morgentaler controversy, legal aid expansion, language conflicts, funding of post-secondary education) makes for fascinating reading. In the years immediately before his stint in government, Penner had traveled the country building support for the Canadian Association of University Teachers, of which he was a founding member. He had begun this union activity at the University of Manitoba while a faculty member in the Faculty of Law. Penner’s account of the union’s first negotiations with the administration should be required reading for all faculty members who today might query the need for a union. Ironically, perhaps, when Penner’s political career ended with the defeat of the Pawley government, Penner returned to the University of Manitoba on the other side of the negotiating table as the Dean of the Law School.

I admit that my own interest as a historian of social and political moments drew me most to Penner’s account of his experiences in the years before he entered provincial politics, roughly the years through to the late 1970s. Penner’s description of his life in North End Winnipeg is one at which poverty was always at the family’s doorstep. The family never owned a home and in the 1930s moved annually from rented home to rented home. Jacob Penner’s commitment to the Communist Party of Canada (CPC), of which he was a founding member, consumed much of his time. It may have been a good fight but it certainly did not earn him any money. On numerous occasions, Rose Penner had to seek out poorly paid piecework jobs often done from the home to make ends meet. But it is also clear that Rose was as committed to social justice issues as her husband and accepted that their public political lives meant that their personal finances would always remain precarious. Roland Penner comments that his parents’ devotion to their children never wavered as it some times did in such families. Indeed, Penner goes into considerable detail about his parents’ “devotion” to their children. Penner’s immersion in the progressive political culture of the North End in the years before World War II makes for fascinating reading. His account of his youth ranges widely from his life in the Young Pioneers, a communist youth organization, to antifascist activities, May Day parades, and rallies around the Spanish Civil War. All this reminds us of the intensity of political debate in the city during the Depression.

Penner’s high school activities at St. John’s Technical High School where the “unity of class” overcame divisions of ethnicity and religion is a captivating read. This was the time of the common front among leftists who together fought against poverty and unemployment and led a determined anti-fascist campaign. As Penner observes, all this came crashing down upon the CPC with the signing of the Soviet-German Non-Aggression Pact in 1938. The CPC’s leadership’s acceptance of this 180-degree political turn despite reservations from within its own ranks rocked the party. This was, Penner suggests, a dreadful miscalculation that weakened the CPC to a degree from which it never fully recovered. The party’s decision had immediate and dire consequences for the Penner family, because it gave the state the excuse it was looking for to imprison leaders of the communist movement. In a poignant reminder of just how fragile political and civil rights are in Canada, Jacob Penner and dozens of other communists were imprisoned and held without charge from 1940–1942 simply for holding alternative political views. None was ever convicted of a criminal offence related to their political activities.

In 1941, following Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union and CPC’s subsequent decision now to support fully the Allied forces, Penner like many communists of his age rushed to join the army. Although his enlisted years were largely uneventful, his life did take a dramatic turn towards the end of the war when he enrolled in what became known as the Khaki University. It was a university programme for soldiers at the war’s end who had to spend months in England waiting their return to their homes. Penner’s is a fascinating account of this rich and varied introduction to academic life. Penner continued his education at the University of Manitoba upon his from England. He spent his undergraduate days immersed in left-wing student politics and cultural activities. He was a prominent member of the Debating Society, organized numerous political meetings on and off-campus, wrote prodigiously for the student newspaper and several communist publications, and pursued his first love, progressive theatre. Originally planning to study drama Penner eventually enrolled in law school for pragmatic considerations, from where he graduated in 1957. He soon took up an offer from Joe Zuken, a prominent city councillor and communist, to practice with him and his partners. Penner has many stories to tell of his legal career in a law firm that focused on labour and poverty related issues. Also, in the 1950s, Penner at various times managed the CPC owned Co-op Bookstore and promoted numerous concerts by some of the era’s prominent folk and political musicians, including Peter Seeger, Miriam Makeba, and Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee. How he managed to balance all these activities with a marriage and a young family are a subject to which he offers only limited insight in the memoir.

In 1956, amid all these personal and professional changes in Penner’s life, he and many other members of the CPC were shocked into questioning their party’s uncritical allegiance to the Soviet Union. Khrushchev’s revelations of Stalin’s brutality at a meeting of the Communist International and the Soviet occupation of Hungary were together a shock of seismic proportions to communist movements around the world. These were troubled times in the Penner family because of Norman’s sharp criticism of the CPC’s leaders among whose ranks he was considered an up and coming member. Roland proved sympathetic to his brother’s arguments, but less vocal with his criticisms. However, their parents’ continued largely unqualified support of the CPC created a delicate situation within the family. But the Penners proved to be a tolerant family and unlike many communist families of the era did not split apart over such issues. There is a good description of these political differences and their impact on the Penner family in A Glowing Dream: A Memoir; a remarkable letter from Jacob Penner to Norman about their political differences is reproduced in the appendices. Norman did soon resign after these events from the CPC and pursued an academic career in which he would make important contributions to history of the left in Canada. Roland never resigned formally from the CPC but, in the early 1960s, decided to let his membership lapse. A Glowing Dream: A Memoir is unfortunately somewhat short on details on this shift in political thinking that eventually would take Penner into the small-l liberal NDP government of Howard Pawley. A Glowing Dream: A Memoir is a well-written, sometimes humorous, reflection by Roland Penner on a Manitoban’s political life on the left. It is well worth the read.

Page revised: 9 December 2016