The RBC Black History Month Student Essay Competition
December 7, 2018
Changing the Meaning of Equality:
The Vision of Juanita Westmoreland-Traoré
Canada holds a global reputation as a defender of human rights, equality and social justice. As a young woman contemplating a future career in law, I am learning how the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, signed into our nation’s Constitution in 1982, guarantees these fundamental protections. One name that stands out within my research is Juanita Westmoreland-Traoré, who holds the phenomenal dual distinctions of becoming the first black dean of a Canadian law school and the first judge of African origin appointed to the Bench in the history of Quebec. Her remarkable achievements include working fearlessly to expand the definition of equality for women and visible minorities in the Charter. The legacy of this incredible black woman is preeminent in defining Canada’s vibrant multi-ethnic identity on the world stage, setting a clear precedent for other nations.
Born to Guyanese immigrants in 1942, Judge Westmoreland-Traoré grew up in Quebec, receiving her law degree from the Université de Montréal and a doctorate from the Université de Paris in the 1960s1. According to former student, Lawyer Tamara Thermitis, Judge Westmoreland-Traoré pursued law school at a time in which, for a woman of colour, “having a voice was not an easy thing…. It (took) a unique courage to voice her views.”2 Her unconventional legal career began at a pivotal point where women, Quebecois, and visible minorities had just started to overtly assert their rights to fundamental freedoms.
By cultivating and honing her passion and commitment to social justice, the rule of law and equality, Judge Westmoreland-Traoré’s career launched a progression of firsts in the Black legal communities. At the time she began to practise law in Quebec in 1970, there was only one other Black lawyer in the province, Frederick Phillips3. Judge Westmoreland-Traoré became the first black woman to teach law in Canada, and later earned the title of Commissioner for the Canadian Human Rights Commission.
Throughout her illustrious and meaningful career, Judge Westmoreland-Traoré continued to be recognized with awards, honours and achievements – far too many to list in this essay! What strikes me the most is her ability to maintain her initial focus: the promotion of human rights, social justice, the right to equality and commitment to serve her community4. In doing so, this incredible black woman has made the face of Canada’s legal community more representative of today’s society.
I was happy to learn of a 2012 conference hosted by former students and colleagues of Judge Westmoreland-Traoré, to celebrate their former law professor at Windsor. As the guest speaker, Judge Westmoreland-Traoré shared with participants how her African-Caribbean heritage compelled her to push the boundaries of Canada’s foundation the legal system. Reflecting on her trailblazing achievements, she even admitted: “I was not always conscious or focusing on the fact that I might be the first. That’s the reality of the situation. Yes, it was a position or a challenge that I was looking for and I organized myself to succeed”5.
At the time, conference organizers noted “we have to celebrate the people who bring forward the conversation about difference, about being seen as different, and who make sure these conversations stay alive.6” Indeed, Judge Westmoreland-Traoré epitomizes this ideal, having opened new horizons for women of all ethnic origins in the legal profession.
In 2013, a bursary “Bourse Juanita Westmoreland-Traoré” was implemented in her honour at l’Université du Quebec à Montreal. It is awarded annually to a “first-year law student that will use their legal training as a tool for change and in the service of the community, engaging in promoting activities related to human rights, social justice and equality rights of disadvantaged and racialized persons”7. The aim of this initiative is to highlight Judge Westmoreland-Traoré’s outstanding contribution she has made in the legal sector and in her community. It is a fitting tribute that promotes her ideals well8.
By challenging others to continue her work, Judge Westmoreland-Traoré is inspiring students like me to rise up to defend those in need. One of my life’s goals is to support the work of the Canadian government in defending and advancing human rights internationally. I am concerned that there are governments who are stifling civil society through limiting the full enjoyment of fundamental freedoms, just as our country’s authorities once did9. Judge Westmoreland-Traoré, a black woman who devoted her entire career to fighting against discrimination, against exclusion and for equity and justice for all, has provided me with the motivating vision I need to make a difference.
1 Phillippe Kirsch Institute Faculty Profile: Westmoreland-Traoré, Juanita, accessed December 2, 2018, http://www.kirschinstitute.ca/faculty/juanita-westmoreland-traore/
2 Victoria Leenders-Cheng, “Gifts in action: honouring Judge Juanita Westmoreland-Traoré”, March 2012, accessed November 28, 2018, https://publications.mcgill.ca/droit/2012/02/07/equality-conference/
3 Patricia DeGuire, “Legal Icon Westmoreland-Traoré Retires”, Ontario Bar Association VOICES, accessed November 28, 2018, http://www.oba.org/en/pdf/sec_news_fla_apr12_legal_icon_deguire.pdf
4 Guyanese Girl “Justice Juanita Westmoreland-Traoré – First Black Judge Appointed To The Bench In Quebec, Canada”, accessed December 5, 2018, https://guyanesegirlsrock.com/justice-juanita-westmoreland-traore-first-black-judge-appointed-to-the-bench-in-quebec-canada/
5 Criminal Justice Firsts. Hon. Juanita Westmoreland-Traoré. Pride News, Ryerson University, 2015, accessed on December 6, 2018. https://www.ryerson.ca/criminaljusticefirsts/courts/Juanita-WT/
6 Tamara Thermitis comment quoted in Cheng, 2012.
7 Arnin Akhnada, “Juanita Westmoreland-Traoré” video presentation on Prezi, updated April 11, 2013, accessed on December 5, 2018, https://prezi.com/xsf8yq9ado6d/juanita-westmorland-traore/
8 Yosie Saint-Cyr “Black History Month: Honouring Juanita Westmoreland-Traoré”, in Slaw legal magazine, accessed on December 6, 2018. http://www.slaw.ca/2013/02/07/black-history-month-honouring-juanita-westmoreland-traore/
9 Global Affairs Canada “Government of Canada – Human rights defenders”, accessed November 30, 2018. http://international.gc.ca/world-monde/issues_development-enjeux_developpement/human_rights-droits_homme/rights_defenders-defenseurs_droits.aspx?lang=eng
Akhnada, Arnin. “Juanita Westmoreland-Traoré” video presentation on Prezi. Updated April 11, 2013. Accessed on December 5, 2018. https://prezi.com/xsf8yq9ado6d/juanita-westmorland-traore/.
Criminal Justice Firsts. Hon. Juanita Westmoreland-Traoré. Pride News. Ryerson University, 2015. Accessed on December 6, 2018. https://www.ryerson.ca/criminaljusticefirsts/courts/Juanita-WT/.
DeGuire, Patricia. “Legal Icon Westmoreland-Traoré Retires”, Ontario Bar Association VOICES. Accessed November 28, 2018. http://www.oba.org/en/pdf/sec_news_fla_apr12_legal_icon_deguire.pdf.
Girl, Guyanese. “Justice Juanita Westmoreland-Traoré – First Black Judge Appointed To The Bench In Quebec, Canada”. Accessed December 5, 2018. https://guyanesegirlsrock.com/justice-juanita-westmoreland-traore-first-black-judge-appointed-to-the-bench-in-quebec-canada/.
Global Affairs Canada. Government of Canada – Human rights defenders. Accessed November 30, 2018. http://international.gc.ca/world-monde/issues_development-enjeux_developpement/human_rights-droits_homme/rights_defenders-defenseurs_droits.aspx?lang=eng
Kennedy, John R. “Quebec judge, TIFF artistic director among UWI Toronto gala honourees”. Global News. January 19, 2015. Accessed on December 6, 2018. https://globalnews.ca/news/1781686/quebec-judge-tiff-artistic-director-among-uwi-toronto-gala-honourees/
Leenders-Cheng, Victoria. “Gifts in action: honouring Judge Juanita Westmoreland-Traoré”, March 2012. Accessed November 28, 2018. Comment at convention by Tamara Thermitis. https://publications.mcgill.ca/droit/2012/02/07/equality-conference/
Phillippe Kirsch Institute Faculty Profile: Westmoreland-Traoré, Juanita. Accessed December 2, 2018. http://www.kirschinstitute.ca/faculty/juanita-westmoreland-traore/
Saint-Cyr, Yosie. “Black History Month: Honouring Juanita Westmoreland-Traoré”. Slaw legal magazine. February 7, 2013. Accessed December 5, 2018. http://www.slaw.ca/2013/02/07/black-history-month-honouring-juanita-westmoreland-traore/