By Victoria Leenders-Cheng
Justice Juanita Westmoreland-Traoré was the first black Canadian to become dean of a faculty of law and the first black Canadian appointed to the bench in Quebec. The Social Justice, Law and Equality conference at the Faculty of Law on March 16-17 will celebrate the career of this groundbreaking jurist.
Adelle Blackett is McGill’s first black professor of law and director of the Labour Law and Development Research Laboratory (LLDRL) at McGill. She also received the prestigious Bora Laskin National Fellowship in Human Rights Research for 2010-2011 and sits on the Quebec Human Rights and Youth Rights Commissions.
As a young student considering pursuing legal studies, she didn’t have any role models in mind, until a librarian told her about Juanita Westmoreland-Traoré.
“I was a high school student growing up in Montreal and hadn’t really met any lawyers,” Blackett recalled. “Then my school librarian told me about Juanita, this beautiful, talented woman, and what she was doing in the world of law.”
At the time, Westmoreland-Traoré was already blazing trails, both for her work in social justice and as the first black woman to teach law, at the University of Montreal and at the L’Université du Québec à Montréal. In the 1980s, she sat on the Canadian Human Rights Commission and was the first chair of Quebec’s Conseil des communautés culturelles et de l’immigration.
“I carried this image of her with me into law school, when I met her and was
fortunate enough to have her become my mentor,” Blackett said. “She draws people to her, builds people up and does what she can to make sure what she has learned through her experience is shared.”
As Westmoreland-Traoré prepares to retire from the bench in 2012, her career is noted as much for its accomplishments as it is for her warmth and humility.
“We wanted to host an event that would underscore Juanita’s contributions to the community, and when I shared that idea with her, her reaction was, ‘Are you sure? There are so many judges who have done so many things,’” said Tamara Thermitus, an LL.M. student at McGill who is helping to organize the conference. “But I know many lawyers – not just from the Black community… – who say that she had a big impact on how they encounter the world.”
The conference covers themes championed by Westmoreland-Traoré, such as equality in everyday life and at work, as well as justice in racialized and globalized communities, and the proceedings include a keynote speech by Afua Cooper on black people and notions of property in early North America.
There are three student groups involved in organizing the event and students will moderate conference panels and translate proceedings, which will be in both English and French.
“Judge Westmoreland-Traoré is, even today, such a mentor to students,” said Ashley Adams, a conference organizer and a fourth-year Law student, “so we’ve tried to have the conference reflect the fact that she is in tune with the community, with students and their realities and with the legal profession as a whole.”
Colleen Sheppard, director of the McGill Centre for Human Rights and Legal Pluralism, which is hosting the conference, had previously worked with Westmoreland-Traoré on social context education sessions for judges of the Court of Quebec.
“It’s been important for us as a human rights centre to profile Judge Westmoreland-Traoré,” she said. “She was appointed as the first black judge in Quebec in 1999 – which is only very recent, if you think about it. It’s not like it was 1952. And so this conference has been important for us as a political, moral and intellectual commitment as well.”
For more information on the conference, which will be held March 16-17, go to www.mcgill.ca/humanrights/conference-registration.