Juanita Westmoreland-Traoré : a groundbreaking pioneer

By Pierre-Luc Beauchesne, lawyer

(Article published on August 17, 2021)

The Medal of the Bar of Montreal will be awarded to Ms. Juanita Westmoreland-Traoré, retired Quebec Court judge, at the Rentrée judiciaire, on September 9, in recognition of her exceptional contribution to the cause of justice. Throughout her rich and varied career, she has fought against racial and ethnic discrimination and steadfastly defended women’s rights. Below is a short portrait of a groundbreaking pioneer who has blazed a trail for future generations.

Juanita Westmoreland-Traoré was born and raised in Verdun. Strongly inspired by the US civil rights movement, she pursued law studies at the Université de Montréal (1963-1966) before obtaining a doctorate in public law and administrative sciences from the University of Paris II (1972). While working on her own a few months after being admitted to the profession in 1969, she represented ten defendants in the case of the infamous student demonstration at Sir George Williams University. From 1970 to 1976, she practised with Mergler, Melançon, Bless and represented, among others, racialized clients accused of assaulting police officers or resisting arrest.

Ms. Westmoreland-Traoré taught at Université de Montréal’s Faculty of Law from 1972 to 1976 and at UQAM’s Law Department from 1976 to 1985. During this time, she also worked for the Quebec government and was a member of the Quebec Consumer Protection Office from 1979 to 1983. Between 1983 and 1985, she was a part-time Commissioner of the Canadian Human Rights Commission.

In 1985, she helped set up the Conseil des communautés culturelles et de l’immigration, of which she was the first Chair. Within this organization, she developed studies and formulated opinions on Quebec’s immigration policies for the Ministry of Cultural Communities and Immigration. After her term ended in 1990, she was appointed Chair of the Ontario Pay Equity Commission, a position she held from 1991 to 1995. After serving as a United Nations advisor to the Truth and Justice Commission in Haiti in 1995, she became Dean of the University of Windsor’s Faculty of Law the following year, a position she held for three years.

In 1999, Ms. Westmoreland-Traoré was appointed to the Court of Québec, becoming the first person of African descent to be appointed to the bench in Quebec. She retired in 2012 but continued to serve as a substitute judge until 2017. The Honourable Westmoreland-Traoré considers her appointment to the bench as the most significant moment of her atypical and multifaceted career. As a judge, she always strove to understand the reality of the person in front of her and render proportionate sentences.

In recognition of her exceptional contribution to society, she has been awarded numerous distinctions over the years. In 1991, she was made an Officer of the Ordre national du Québec. She was awarded honorary doctorates from the University of Ottawa (1993), UQAM (2001) and McGill University (2018). She has also received other awards, including the Canadian Bar Association’s Touchstone Award in 2005 and the Commission des droits de la personne et des droits de la jeunesse’s Rights and Freedoms Award in 2008.

Ms. Westmoreland-Traoré has always fought for a more inclusive and diverse profession. She considers that we must continue to promote rapprochement and integration to live in an even more harmonious society. Everyone must have a chance, and nothing should ever be taken for granted. Although she sees some improvement, she hopes that progress will continue, as discrimination is still present, albeit in more subtle forms.

Even now that she’s retired, Ms. Westmoreland-Traoré remains committed and involved with her community, including Centraide Montreal, the Ligue des droits et libertés, the Congress of Black Women of Canada and the Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund.

For more information on the future Medal of the Bar of Montreal recipient, click here to watch the Bar of Montreal and Young Bar of Montreal’s video “Towards a More Representative Profession – Retired Quebec Court Judge Juanita Westmoreland-Traoré.”

The Medal of the Bar of Montreal is awarded by the Council, after consultation with the Conference of former Bâtonnier, to persons, members or not of the Bar, who have distinguished themselves by their contribution to the cause of justice. Click here to see the list of previous recipients.