While she has no affiliation to the University of the West Indies (UWI), Juanita Westmoreland-Traore is cognizant of the role that institutions of higher learning play in a global world increasingly driven by knowledge, information and ideas.
She has a doctorate and law degree and was a law professor prior to being appointed Quebec’s first Black judge in April 1999. In addition, her parents were born in Guyana and many of her close friends have roots in the Caribbean, where the UWI was established in 1948 as the University College of the West Indies (UCWI) in a special relationship with the University of London.
Westmoreland-Traore will be the recipient of a Luminary Award at the sixth annual UWI Toronto benefit gala on March 28 at the Ritz-Carlton Toronto.
Because of her ties to the Caribbean and the significant premium she places on higher education, she says the honour is very special.
“I am very much touched by this award because, in a way, it recognizes my Caribbean roots and also the challenges and struggles that my parents faced when they first came to this country as immigrants in the 1930s,” Westmoreland-Traore told Share this week. “They are not here to live it now, but I know how proud they will be. This award also validates some of the work I have done in the community, in law practice over many years and in government work when I tried to be inclusive across different cultural communities, including the African Canadian and Caribbean community.”
Arthur Westmoreland arrived in Canada at age 13 to join his older brother, who owned a small business in Montreal and an Ottawa farm while Alma Parris followed a few years later. They married in 1940 and Parris died 12 years later at age 36.
The family patriarch worked as a railroad porter and was a member of several community organizations, including the Negro Citizenship Association and his church’s board of trustees. He died in 1997, while his daughter was at the University of Windsor.
“My dad was a self-made man with little education who confronted racial discrimination and economic difficulties here in Montreal,” said Westmoreland-Traore, who celebrated her 73rd birthday on March 10. “He taught me I could be whatever I wanted to be provided I worked hard. He was a hard-working and well respected man who valued education and community service.”
The high regard in which Westmoreland-Traore holds her parents is evident in her decision to dedicate the UWI award to them and her grandparents.
“When I was six years old, my maternal grandmother took me to Guyana where I spent a year,” she said. “I met my great-grandmother and other relatives, many of whom migrated. I also met my paternal grandmother who resided in La Penitence (a suburb in Georgetown). What I remember most about my grandparents was that they were very religious people who worked hard and were community-oriented. They instilled the values of hard work, respect and giving in me.”
Westmoreland paid her second and last visit to Guyana in 1999.
“I was in the process of establishing collaborations between the University of Windsor and the University of Guyana when I was appointed a judge and those plans were shelved,” she said.
After securing a law degree from the Universite de Montreal and a doctorate in public law from the Universite de Paris II, Westmoreland-Traore – who was called to the Quebec Bar in 1969 – practiced law until 1976 and lectured on law at the Universite de Montreal and the Universite du Quebec a Montreal.
She also served as a Quebec Consumer Protection Bureau board member, a Canadian Human Rights Commission commissioner, the first chair and president of Quebec’s Council on Cultural Communities and Immigration, Ontario’s first and only Employment Equity commissioner, a Haiti Truth Commission adviser and a South African Education Trust Fund member before becoming the first Black dean of a Canadian law school through her appointment at the University of Windsor Faculty of Law in 1996.
She made history three years later with her appointment as Quebec’s first Black judge.
Blacks are still under-represented in Quebec’s judicial system. Of the 290 judges in Quebec’s court, just three are Black and there is just one Black judge among the 184 justices on the Quebec Superior Court.
Two years ago, the Universite du Quebec a Montreal established a scholarship in Westmoreland’s honour. It will be awarded to a first-year law student in the faculty of political science and law who has demonstrated excellence in the use of the law as a tool for social change and who is involved in activities that promote human rights, social justice and the right to equality of underprivileged and racialized minorities.
The student will receive $3,000 for each year of the program.
A supplementary judge and active member of the International Association of Women Judges Canadian chapter and the Canadian Association of Black Lawyers, Westmoreland-Traore – who is an Officer of the National Order of Quebec – plans to document her distinguished life.
“I have learned a few lessons which I know are precious and valuable and I would love to share them,” she said. “It could take the form of several vignettes before eventually becoming a book.”
Other UWI award recipients are recording artist Shaggy, who will also be honoured with a Luminary Award; Toronto International Film Festival artistic director, Cameron Bailey and UWI alumnus Dr. Catherine Chandler-Crichlow, who will receive Vice-Chancellor Awards. In addition, Scotiabank Toronto Caribbean Carnival and George Brown College will be presented with Chancellor Awards.
Retired banking executive and Order of Canada recipient, Charles Coffey, is the recipient of the inaugural Raymond Chang Memorial Award. The UWI Toronto gala patron passed away last July.
The event has raised close to $1 million in the last five years that will help Caribbean students attend university.