The Many Hats of Marcel Danis

As The Link is working to improve its archives, several notable articles from before the shiny-computer-era will be uploaded to the Archives Blog. Today: the portrait of Marcel Danis, a Concordia professor, Hells Angels criminal defence lawyer, and more recently legal counsel of former interim Mayor Michael Applebaum. Enjoy!

This story was written by Damon Van Der Linde and originally published in The Link on March 11, 2008.

Criminal defense lawyer Marcel Danis was in the middle of a trial when the Sûreté du Québec asked for it to be put on hold immediately. The police took Danis by helicopter to Val d’Or in Northern Quebec, to negotiate an armed standoff with three of his former clients holding hostages in a bank, all armed with machine guns.

“They all knew that they weren’t going to get away, but they were really nervous that the police were going to shoot them,” says Danis. “And if the sharpshooters had gotten a good shot, they would have probably been right.”

A few hours later, all the hostages were released and three bank robbers were riding in the back of a police cruiser headed to Montreal––with Danis handcuffed to the leader.

That was 1980, when Danis considered those situations to be just another part of his job as a criminal defense lawyer. Now, it’s one of his favourite stories to tell his law class at Concordia.

Aside from being a criminal defence lawyer for such high-profile clients as Hell’s Angel Michelle Rowes, Danis was Minister of Labour in the Mulroney cabinet. In addition, Danis has held a variety of administrative positions at Concordia : vice-rector institutional relations, vice-president institutional relations, vice-dean administrative affairs for the Faculty of Arts and Science and vice-dean academic planning for the Faculty of Arts and Science.

As of Feb. 1, he is just Professor Danis. He has left his position as vice-president external relations at Concordia to become a full-time professor, ending his 12-year stint in the university administration.

“I’m looking forward to going back to teaching full-time and I’m looking forward to my courses,” says Danis. “I’m not upset about leaving at all.”

Maria Peluso, president of the Concordia University Part-Time Faculty Association and fellow political science professor, says that she understands Danis’ desire to return to teaching. However, she laments no longer having him as a negotiator in the university administration. “If you mention a problem he finds a method of getting out of it in a good way that will resolve it. He’s a fixer. We haven’t had anyone do that at Concordia for the past six years. In comparison to what we have had since, he’s a rose.”

Danis says that he does not mind stepping down from his place in the administration because he feels that the most interesting aspect of his career had been working with students.

“This is my 40th year working as a professor and I’ve never had a bad class,” says Danis. “I think that being a university professor is the best job in the world.”

Danis has never really stopped teaching. Even when he was a cabinet minister, he insisted that Mulroney let him at Concordia one day a week for free while he spent the rest of the time in Ottawa.

“He would take a helicopter in, by whatever means necessary to teach. He would not even abandon his students during the time he was in Parliament,” says Peluso. “You would expect someone with all these responsibilities would not be so available. He always made time.”

Born in Montreal in 1943, Danis has spent his entire life learning, about the Canadian legal system-his father was a Superior Court of Quebec judge and criminal defence lawyer. His first “hands on” legal education came not in the courtroom or law school, but at the receiving end of a police officer’s fist after being arrested while passing through a demonstration.

“One police officer let me go by, but the other one had not seen the first one let me go by so they grabbed me with force and brought me to the police station,” says Danis. “One buy beat me good. He punched me solid for no reason at all and I stayed there […] until they released me in the morning.”

Danis was charged with disturbing the peace and resisting arrest but was ultimately acquitted. He later successfully sued the Montreal Police Force for $5,000. Danis says that he does not hold any grudges. He even met the officer that beat him while defending a client who was accusing the police of brutality. “I asked if he’d ever beaten somebody else in his career. Then his face just became red,” remembers Danis, smiling. “The system worked.” During his time at Concordia, Danis has been very involved with students outside of classes. From 1972 to 1984, Danis spent his Friday and Saturday nights at the police station, helping out students who had gotten in trouble––often after a night at the bar.

“All students had to do was call the university security and saw what police station they were in and I would be there 45 minutes later,” says Danis. “Those were the drug years.”

As Concordia grew, Danis was no longer able to personally represent students, but he did establish a legal information service, where students could receive free legal advice.

Talking to colleagues, current and former students, some words consistently come up when describing Danis: honest, trusting, shrewd and above all else, someone who cares about his students and loves being a teacher.

“The one time when there was a mix-up when he had scheduled an appointment with some lawyers at the same time as me, a student, he made the lawyers wait,” says Rowan Kunitz, a student in Danis’ Canadian law and ethics class. “I don’t think they were very happy about that.”

Even those who don’t see eye to eye with his political conviction find it hard not to get along with Danis. “I certainly don’t agree with all his policy stances, I ran as a NDP candidate and he’s a Conservative,” says Peluso. “He’s a class act and a formidable opponent, there’s no doubt about that. And it’s hard to yell at him because he’s so calm.”

Back in 1980, when Danis walked into that bank robbery to meet with his former clients––armed with machine guns––he says that he had no concerns that they might turn on him. “I trusted the guys. I wasn’t worried at all. I knew nothing would happen once I got there,” says Danis. “I was more worried about the police shooting me. If I could do it again, the only regret was that I didn’t make sure that this was covered by my life insurance.”

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