Obituary: Gordon Echenberg, 83, a Montreal lawyer who championed global human rights

Gordon Echenberg

Lawyer and philanthropist Gordon Echenberg traced his dedication to human rights back to his childhood in Sherbrooke, Quebec, where his family was a member of the small Jewish community.

He liked to tell the story that when he was six he got into a fight at school when someone called him a “dirty Jew.” The Second World War had just ended and Hitler had been defeated. Little Gordon was not going to stand for antisemitic slurs, and he told the school principal as much.

Echenberg died Sept. 26 at age 83 after a lengthy illness, having devoted his final two decades to the advancement of human rights worldwide, after retiring from his law practice.

He attributed growing up in a traditional Jewish family in a small town as the source of the values that drove him to seek social justice for all people. He remained fiercely proud of his roots in Sherbrooke, maintaining friends made there throughout his life.

One of them is fellow lawyer Raphael Schachter who refers to Echenberg as a brother.

“Sherbrooke was our foundation. Gordie demonstrated in the most positive manner possible that his upbringing made him an inherently decent human being,” he said.

In 2007, Echenberg and his wife Penny donated $1 million to his alma mater McGill University for the establishment, with the law faculty, of a series of international conferences on human rights.

Born in Sherbrooke on March 20, 1940, Echenberg earned a BA at McGill in 1961, and then a civil law degree in 1964, following in the footsteps of his father, who entered the university in 1907. He spent his legal career at the firm of Chait and its various partners over the years.

The inaugural human rights conference under his sponsorship, which drew eminent experts, marked the 100th anniversary of his father’s admission to McGill.

“These conferences were founded in the hope that they will constitute meaningful stepping-stones for the practical implementation of human rights,” he said. “They’re intended to bridge the gap between academia and those dealing with the practical realities of promoting and enforcing rights…

“No one, no institution and no society should be above fair, objective and constructive criticism.” The third and final conference was held in 2013.

Each included a forum for young people, which evolved into the formation of a network in several countries now working for human rights, with which Echenberg remained in contact.

The younger Echenberg shone at McGill, where he was a star member of the debating team, touring with it in North America and Europe.

He was elected president of the student union, the McGill Students Society, and was instrumental in the building of the society’s headquarters, now known as the Shatner Building.

As a 29-year-old graduate, Echenberg was appointed to the university’s board of governors, the youngest to ever receive this honour, and he served for 15 years.

Echenberg was a lecturer in the law faculty from 1974-1977. Supreme Court Justice Nicholas Kasirer, a former dean of law, said Echenberg “inspired and nurtured a commitment to human rights in a generation of young people at McGill.”

In 1988, Echenberg became a founding member and director of InterAmicus, a McGill-based international human rights advocacy centre that was chaired by his close friend, Irwin Cotler.

Echenberg was a founder and stalwart of the Canadian Associates of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev since the organization’s inception in 1977, reflecting his ardent support for the State of Israel, as well as his belief that making higher education accessible would serve the cause of human rights.

One of his cherished projects, along with his wife and son Andrew, was supporting a school in a remote village in Cambodia.

Echenberg was a founding member of the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights created by Cotler after he left federal politics, and sat on its board of directors from the beginning.

Cotler called Echenberg “a great communal leader, educator and human rights activist… A guiding inspiration in all of our work in Canada and beyond.

“On a personal level, Gordie was a soulmate from my university days. He was my debating partner, and one of the best student leaders the university ever had,” said Cotler.

Echenberg was also involved with the McGill Middle East Peace Program, out of which grew today’s ICAN-McGill. Its director, Amal Elsana Alhjooj, a Bedouin from Israel’s Negev, said, “Losing someone as kind-hearted, generous, and devoted to peace and justice as he was is a profound loss for all who knew him. His commitment to these noble causes was not only admirable but also incredibly inspiring. He touched the lives of many with his compassion and tireless efforts to make the world a better place.”

In recent years, Echenberg worked to maintain the Jewish cemetery in Sherbrooke, where the community has dwindled to a handful. Ari Vineberg said Echenberg was “instrumental in navigating the legal and practical challenges of ensuring the cemetery would continue to be cared for in perpetuity.”

Echenberg was also among 96 signatories of an open letter to Premier Francois Legault appealing to him to modify the restrictions in Bill 96 on government services in English.

Echenberg was known for his gregariousness, exuberance and sense of humour, and many commented on his ever-present smile and twinkle in his eye that did not diminish despite the health challenges he faced in the past years.

Commented friends Ann and Gabor Kato, “He lived life to the fullest… When in difficult times, I asked myself: What would Gordie do? He was a tremendous inspiration for us. He lived by the motto ‘Good living is the best revenge.’”