By MYRON LOVE After 43 years in practice, the past ten as head of the Independent Investigative Unit (IIU) of Manitoba, Zane Tessler is looking forward to retirement. “I felt that it is time for me to take a break,” he says. “I am not sure how long this break will last. But I want to enjoy retirement while I am still healthy enough to do so.”
Looking back, the longtime lawyer expresses his gratitude for a fulfilling career in both private and public practice. “I have had the opportunity to work with many really good, experienced lawyers, several of whom became my mentors.”
As with many of his contemporaries, Zane Tessler comes from a humble background. His late father, Ernie, was an orphan of the Holocaust who was brought to Winnipeg after the war – along with his sister and a cousin – by relatives who had settled here before the war. Ernie married Canadian-born Faye and the couple began their life together and their family – with Zane being the oldest of four – in Fort Rouge, where Ernie operated a grocery store which is now the site of the BDI ice cream drive-in.
Over time, Ernie prospered in business and the family moved first to Inkster and MacGregor, then to Garden City. Zane and his siblings went to Talmud Torah for elementary school and Jefferson/Garden City Collegiate for high school.
After earning a B.A ., Tessler was accepted into law school. He was called to the bar in 1980.
Tessler was in private practice for 18 years, serving with several different firms, including Norton Schwartz McJannet Weinberg; Nozick Sinder; Walsh Micay; Myers Weinberg; and Wilder Wilder and Langtry. He also partnered with Harley Greenberg in their own firm.
Throughout his time in private practice, Tessler’s focus was primarily on criminal law. “My areas of interest in law school were tax law and corporate litigation,” he recalls. “When I started at Norton Schwartz, I asked if anyone at the firm was doing criminal law. At that time, the only way to become experienced in criminal law was by doing it. I was put in touch with Michael Werier, who handled most of the criminal law cases – and I was off and running.”
In 1998, he transitioned to the other side when he became a Crown Attorney. “I felt that I had accomplished as much as I could as a defense attorney,” he says. “Working in the public sphere presents a more calming environment and a more stable life style.”
He points out that he joined the “other side” as a senior Crown Attorney. During his 15 years with the Crown office, he served as the provincial representative on the national Wrongful Conviction Committee for just shy of 10 years. He was also a member of the Crown’s Education Committee.
“For the last two years with the Crown’s office, I was responsible for supervising and mentoring new prosecutors,” he notes.
The idea of establishing a special independent body to investigate incidents involving members of the police force in the province – including RCMP officers – was first broached in Manitoba in the early 1990s,” Tessler points out. While Ontario established just such an independent investigative unit around that time, the other provinces didn’t follow up. It was the attempted cover up of the Crystal Taman case in 2005 that led directly to the creation of the IIU in Manitoba.
As some readers may recall, Taman was killed in an accident in East St. Paul involving a drunken off-duty Winnipeg police offer and a subsequent effort by the East St. Paul police department to shield the officer from prosecution. The officer was eventually sentenced to two years of house arrest and subsequently left the police force.
The creation of the IIU in 2013 was one of the recommendations of the inquiry that followed.
“I was the first employee,” says Tessler, who was appointed as executive director. “Now we have a staff of 15, including 15 investigators.
“Our purpose is not to prosecute police officers involved in serious incidents, but rather to investigate in a transparent manner and try to explain what occurred,” he continues. “Our reports are all available to members of the public. In all cases where the officer is cleared, his or her name is left out of the report.
“Where a prosecution is warranted, a different office takes over the case.”
When the IIU first began operations, Tessler recounts, “we were viewed as outsiders, an irritant. It took a while for police officers to buy in. To realize that the work we are doing benefits them. Now, we have a good relationship with law enforcement.”
Tessler adds that there have been and continue to be more officer-involved shootings in Winnipeg as compared to other cities – and each has to be investigated to determine if the use of lethal force was justified. “We work with a sense of integrity and professionalism and an eye to informing the public as best we can how and why the incident happened,” he points out. “We have received very few complaints and have never been challenged in court.”
Now, nearing completion of his second five-year term as head of the IIU, and with major changes coming to the operation of the unit as a result of the most recent government review a couple of years ago, Tessler believes that this is a good time to turn the reins over to a new director to lead the IIU into the future.
His last day at work will be June 30.
In retirement, Tessler says that he is looking forward to a simpler life, working on his golf game at Glendale (where is a member of the board), doing some traveling with his wife Shawna, and enjoying his grandchildren.