Tag Archives: Roland Penner

A Notorious Winnipeg Robber

Many years ago I took an evening course about Winnipeg history with Roland Penner a former Attorney General of Manitoba.  Mr Penner had been involved in a legal case associated with a notorious Winnipeg robbery and he told us all about it.

Kenneth Leishman

On March 3, 1966,  a man named Ken Leishman masterminded the theft of nearly $400,000 in gold bars from the Winnipeg International Airport.  The gold was en route to the mint in Ottawa. Ken posing as an Air Canada driver intercepted the gold and drove away with it.

Harry Backlin, a lawyer was part of the scheme. He was on a planned holiday in California so it would look like he wasn’t involved in the robbery. On his return from the United States Backlin was going to take the gold to Hong Kong and sell it. Ken hid the gold in a snowbank in Harry’s backyard.  

Harry’s plans to go to Hong Kong were thwarted when there was a problem with his passport so Ken decided to go to Hong Kong to sell the gold himself. He sawed off a piece of gold to take to Hong Kong as a sample for potential buyers.

However, Ken needed a smallpox vaccination to go to Hong Kong. Harry arranged one with a friend who was a doctor. There was supposed to be a seven-day waiting period after vaccination before travel, but Ken convinced the doctor to lie and put the wrong date on the vaccination form so he could leave Canada right away.

The doctor feeling guilty confessed what he’d done to a police officer. The officer recognized Ken’s name because of his previous criminal activity.  The RCMP arrested Ken in the Vancouver airport when he arrived there on his way to Hong Kong. He managed to get rid of his sawed-off piece of gold before he was arrested. It has never been found. 

Ken is arrested

While in prison in Vancouver after his arrest Ken made the mistake of explaining the heist in detail to the man sharing his cell. He was an RCMP agent incarcerated with Ken for the purpose of extracting incriminating information. After Ken’s Vancouver jailhouse confession, the gold was dug up from Harry’s backyard and Ken was sent to jail in Headingly, Manitoba till his trial. 

Ken managed to escape from Headingly, was recaptured in Indiana and sent to the Vaughn Street Detention Centre and he escaped from there too. Finally, he was tried, convicted and sent to prison for twelve years. He managed to be released after just eight years for good behaviour.

Ken and his wife Elva

Following his prison release, Ken and his wife Elva and their seven children moved to Red Lake where they opened a store and Ken became a pillar of the community, even serving as president of the Red Lake Chamber of Commerce.

Ken, a former pilot began flying mercy flights taking people from northern communities to hospitals. In 1979 while flying one of these mercy flights his plane went missing. It took almost five months of searching but the remains of the aircraft were eventually found. 

 After learning about Kenneth Leishman from Mr Penner’s course I read a book about him, called The Flying Bandit by Heather Robertson. She writes about Ken’s difficult childhood. His parents were divorced, he was in foster homes and he lived with some strict and unaffectionate grandparents.

I truly admired his wife Elva who stuck with him through everything and raised their seven children. I also learned about the crimes Ken had committed before the gold heist– two bank robberies and a break and enter at a furniture store.

Something interesting I discovered was that when Ken escaped from Headingly Jail in September of 1966 he went to Steinbach, where my family was living at the time, and stole a plane. Ken and three other Headingly escapees flew the plane to Gary Indiana before they were arrested. 

Heather Robertson does a good job of helping us get to know Ken as a person. He truly believed he could get away with his crimes. He was a nice man –polite, friendly, dressed neatly and fashionably, was faithful to his wife, loved his children, wrote poetry but………. secretly revelled in the fame his crimes brought him. 

If you’d like to know more about this notorious Winnipeg robber I’d recommend a great little movie called Ken Leishman- The Flying Bandit. 

Other posts………..

Louis Riel

The House on Beaverbrook Street

Remembering the Holocaust in Winnipeg

 

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Octogenarian Story Teller Extraordinaire

I read in the Winnipeg Free Press on the weekend that Roland Penner had died.  He was a high-profile lawyer, a professor at the University of Manitoba, member of the Manitoba legislature, and served as the province’s attorney general.   I knew him however as a storyteller.  

Photo by Joe Bryska/Winnipeg Free Press

In 2012 I took a course from Roland at the McNally Robinson Community Classroom called Winnipeg Fact and Fiction where he told stories about events from Winnipeg history and then introduced us to books that had those same events as their focus.  I remember three of the classes in particular. One in which he taught us about the Winnipeg strike and we looked at Margaret Sweatman’s novel Fox.  Another where he described famous criminal cases tried in Winnipeg and introduced us to Heather Robertson’s biography of robber Kenneth Leishman The Flying Bandit and another where we examined the Winnipeg immigrant experience and Fredelle Maynard’s memoire Raisins and Almonds. 

In 2012 I had just moved to Winnipeg and taking the course from Roland was a great way to connect with the history of the city that was to be my new home. He made every class so interesting.  He was 86 at the time. In one of the blog posts I wrote about the course I described Roland as an ‘octogenarian story teller extraordinaire’. It is clear from his obituary Roland Penner lived his life story to the fullest and left an extraordinary mark on our province’s and city’s histories. He was 93. 

Other posts……..

Winnipeg General Strike

The Flying Bandit

 Winnipeg Mennonite Immigrant Fiction

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There is Winnipeg Mennonite Fiction!

He got it wrong! In March I took a course called Winnipeg Fact and Fiction from Roland Penner octogenarian story-teller extraordinaire. One class was about the contributions immigrant families have made to the city.  Penner was right in asserting that immigrants and their children helped put Winnipeg on the map. Just  look at people like ………….

Manitoba Theatre Centre founder John Hirsch who was a war orphan from Hungary

Sculptor Leo Mol who came to Canada from Ukraine in 1948

Politician Stanley Knowles who immigrated to Canada from Los Angeles with his parents in the early 1900s.  Intrepid war hero William Stephenson, Winnipeg’s own James Bond, whose parents were immigrants from Iceland and Scotland. 

Comedian David Steinberg born in Winnipeg to Romanian immigrant parents. 

The purpose of the course Winnipeg Fact and Fiction was to introduce a topic about Winnipeg history and then suggest one or two companion novels that might shed an interesting perspective on that theme.  Our teacher Roland Penner got it wrong when he recommended Fredelle Maynard’s book Raisins and Almonds as his top fiction pick reflecting the Winnipeg immigrant experience.

Raisins and Almonds tells the story of a young girl growing up on the Canadian prairies as the child of Jewish immigrants from Russia. The first problem I have with Roland Penner choosing this book is that it’s not fiction, but Maynard’s memoirs. Secondly, although there are a some pages in the book devoted to life in Winnipeg the majority of the stories are set in the small Canadian prairie towns where Fredelle’s family moved in hopes of finding one where her father’s mercantile business would be successful. 

Someone in the class asked Roland if he could recommend fiction books that would represent the Mennonite immigrant experience in Winnipeg and he said there weren’t any. He claimed since Mennonites settled primarily in the rural areas of Manitoba, if there was any fiction about their immigrant experience it wouldn’t be set in Winnipeg. He was wrong. 

Dora Dueck’s novel This Hidden Thing, winner of last year’s McNally Robinison Book of the Year award, is definitely fiction and is set almost solely in Winnipeg. It tells the story of young Mennonite girls who came to live in Winnipeg to work as maids in the homes of wealthy people in order to help pay the money their families owed to the Canadian Pacific Railway. The CPR had financed loans to make it possible for Mennonites to come to Canada from Ukraine.  Maria, the main character in Dueck’s novel, spends almost her entire life in Winnipeg after immigrating from Ukraine as a teenager.  

Penner is also wrong when he says there weren’t many Mennonite immigrants in Winnipeg. By the 1920’s six Mennonite churches had already been established in the city and by the 1950’s there were 7000 Mennonites living in Winnipeg. 

What next? I’d like to find out if there are any other novels set primarily in Winnipeg that reflect the experience of Mennonite immigrants. 

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The 1919 Winnipeg Strike- Fact and Fiction

I am taking a course at the McNally Robinson community classroom from Roland Penner, a former dean of the University of Manitoba law school and the province’s Attorney General in the 1980s. The course is called Winnipeg History- Fact and Fiction. In each class, Roland gives a quick overview of an event in Winnipeg’s history and then introduces us to novels which have been written about those events. I decided I would try to read one novel about each event. 

Protesters during the Winnipeg General Strike

In our first class, we looked at the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919. For six weeks beginning in May, more than 30,000 Winnipeg workers walked off the job. The strike was the product of poor working conditions, unemployment–especially in the case of returning World War I soldiers, the economic recession and the activity of union organizers.  The strikers wanted an eight-hour workday, collective bargaining and a living wage. 

The strike virtually brought the city to a standstill. Work stopped at the railway yards and factories. Winnipeg had no mail, streetcars, taxis, newspapers, telegrams, telephones, gasoline, or milk delivery. Most restaurants, stores, and even barbershops closed. Police, firefighters, and employees of the waterworks joined the strike. 

The strike leaders were arrested and imprisoned and the strike ended on June 21,1919 when a contingent of Royal Northwest Canadian Mounted Police charged a group of strikers, killing two and injuring 30 others. 

 

The novel I read about the strike was Fox by Margaret Sweatman. There is a rather elegant and obviously wealthy young woman on the cover. Her name is Eleanor and it is basically through her eyes and that of her upper-class friends and family that we view the strike.  Eleanor leads a very privileged existence and knows little about the lives of Winnipeg’s working class. However, when she begins a romantic relationship with a book store owner who is a strike supporter, her eyes are opened to the working conditions of Winnipeg’s lower class as well as the suffering they experience as a result of the strike. 

Although it is clear author Margaret Sweatman’s sympathies lie with the strikers, interestingly her grandfather Travers Sweatman was one of the Company of 1000– a group of Winnipeg citizens who banded together to bring about the unconditional defeat of the strike. They hired 2000 militiamen to take the place of the striking police and discouraged all attempts to try to find a peaceful negotiated settlement with the strikers. Margaret’s grandfather was an attorney who helped in the legal prosecution of the strike organizers. One wonders if writing her novel was a way for Sweatman to do penance for the sins of her grandfather.

I was glad I knew some general information about the Winnipeg Strike before I read Fox. I think I might have been confused otherwise since Sweatman doesn’t provide a straight forward narrative but rather a kind of fascinating jumble of newspaper articles, lists, headlines, stories, letters, poems and journal entries. She does a fine job of juxtapositioning events–a high society wedding is described right after we read that the strike leaders have been arrested– while Eleanor is hosting a tobogganing party the union leaders are meeting illegally at the Walker Theatre. Margaret shows what clear and widely disparate economic and social class distinctions existed in Winnipeg at the time of the strike. 

What next? In our next class, we are going to look at famous Winnipeg crimes both in fact and fiction. 

Other posts……..

Strike Mural

Bloody Sunday

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