Immigration lawyer Cecil Rotenberg remembered as fighter for the underdog
Respected Toronto lawyer, who died at age 82, had a gift for making people feel special, colleagues say.
Toronto immigration lawyer Cecil Rotenberg was an extremely optimistic man who never thought the glass was half full. For him, the glass was always at least three-quarters full.
During summer road trips in the 1960s and 1970s, his car overflowed with most of his six kids. He would take them chestnut hunting, apple picking, and fishing. He rented a recreational vehicle to take his family to California one year and to Louisiana another.
To his eldest daughter, Marci Dinkin, Rotenberg’s role in these family adventures reminded her of actor John Candy in the 1985 comedy Summer Rental.
But on a very different trip taken by Khulan Bataa, Rotenberg was a saviour.
Bataa had travelled to Toronto on a visitor’s visa from her home in Mongolia in 2007 for treatment of her leukemia that was not available in her homeland. Rotenberg, affectionately known as the grandfather of immigration law, fought an eight-year legal battle to allow her to stay in Canada for medical care.
“He gave me hope. He made me feel welcome,” she said of Rotenberg. “I was like his family.”
Rotenberg died of heart failure on Nov. 17 in Toronto. He was 82.
“He had a gift of making people feel very special,” said John Edwards, an immigration consultant who worked on many files with Rotenberg. “He was a real fighter for the underdog.”
“He had a passion for what he did,” said Mohsen Seddigh, Rotenberg’s associate lawyer, “and a childlike positive attitude about him that was not corrupted by his years of experience.”
Immigration lawyer Mario Bellissimo said Rotenberg was like the Wayne Gretzky of immigration law. “He changed the landscape,” said Bellissimo. “Millions of people have benefitted because of the principles that could be applied to future cases,” he said.
Rotenberg was known for his creativity and resourcefulness as a problem solver and always had a Plan B in case the first plan didn’t work.
“My dad wasn’t a person who took ‘no’ lightly,” said Ira Rotenberg, the third of the six Rotenberg children.
In two cases Cecil Rotenberg took simultaneously to the Supreme Court, he represented families who were denied entry into Canada because of the perceived toll their intellectually disabled children would take on Canada’s social support system. As the Globe and Mail reported in 2005, both families had assured immigration department officials they would use private services to prevent their children from becoming a burden on Canadian society. The court sided with Rotenberg’s clients.
Cecil Lorne Rotenberg was born in Toronto in 1933 and grew up in the Bathurst St. and St. Clair Ave. W. area. His father was a lawyer who never retired. Rotenberg attended high school at Oakwood Collegiate and studied law at Osgoode Hall Law School. He started practising family law in the 1960s and gradually switched to immigration law in the 1970s.
Rotenberg worked long hours throughout his career, often getting home at midnight. He combined business with family time, either inviting clients to his home for dinner with his family, or taking clients out for dinner with his kids in tow.
Rotenberg had a global presence, meeting with his clients wherever they were. He told the Globe and Mail in 1996 that he typically travelled the equivalent of four times around the world every year in order to visit each of his nine associate offices two or three times.
Rotenberg took on, and won, many different types of cases. One involved a Hong Kong man, Hui Xin Liang, accused by a local immigration officer of being in a fraudulent marriage with a Canadian woman because of some notes Liang had in his possession. The Star reported in 2013 that a federal court judge ruled the notes about his courtship were a memory aid Liang needed during his third interview with immigration officials. Liang had failed two previous immigration interviews because he was too nervous to answer some basic questions.
Refugee matters were also close to Rotenberg’s heart. In 1989, he called government efforts to eliminate a 124,000 refugee backlog “the most reprehensible situation I have seen in my entire career.” According to the Star, Rotenberg and another immigration lawyer went to the Federal Court to stop the streamlined refugee claims process, arguing the new process was preventing refugee claimants from accessing counsel.
Like his father, Rotenberg never planned to retire. Even in hospital, where he was admitted five times for a total of five months in his last year of life, his hospital room became a law office as associates visited regularly to review case files with him. Rotenberg became animated whenever discussing work from his bed, sometimes forgetting family members were also in the room.
“His mind was sharp despite his body failing,” said Bellissimo. “I thought Cecil would just keep on going.”
Rotenberg is survived by his second wife, Miriam, five adult children, and 10 grandchildren. His oldest son died in 1999.