Paying homage to pioneers who paved the way for others to succeed helps young people appreciate the journey to their destination.
The Canadian Association of Black Lawyers (CABL) did exactly that last Saturday night, celebrating a distinguished group of trailblazers at its 16th annual awards ceremony. Among them was Juanita Westmoreland-Traore, who retired from the bench earlier this year.
The daughter of Guyanese immigrants, Westmoreland-Traore was the first Black to become dean of a law school – the University of Windsor Faculty of Law – and the first Black appointed to the Bench in Quebec. After obtaining a law degree from the Universite de Montreal where she taught and a doctorate from the University of Paris, she was called to the Quebec Bar in 1969 and appointed a Quebec Court judge 13 years ago.
Prior to becoming a judge, Westmoreland-Traore was a Canadian Human Rights commissioner and the first and only Ontario Employment Equity chair.
“What I most cherished about Juanita was her generosity of spirit throughout time,” said lawyer Yola Grant. “There were difficult days here in Ontario when she served as chief commissioner of the Employment Equity Tribunal and Mike Harris was elected on his vitriolic campaign against legislating for equitable workplaces. Whether she was engaged in pitched battles with naysayers in her role as chief commissioner or in an amiable productive work setting, Juanita always displayed calm and patience.
“She did not harbour cynicism and always made time to encourage others, particularly students and newcomers to the profession and to the struggle. Through her long and successful career, as a mother, wife, teacher, advocate and community builder, she demonstrated that one could live one’s values and practice law.”
Jamaican-born Robert Sutherland, who was the first Black to graduate from a Canadian university, study law in North America and was called to the Law Society of Upper Canada Bar; Delos Davis, who was the first Black to be allowed to practice as a solicitor and barrister; Nova Scotia’s first Black lawyer, James Robinson Johnston; Canada’s first Black female lawyer, Violet Henry, who graduated from the University of Alberta’s law school in 1954; Quebec’s first Black lawyer, Frederick Phillips, who graduated from McGill University 56 years ago; Edsworth Searles, who was the first Black lawyer called to the British Columbia Bar in 1958 and Canada’s first Black bencher, Leonard Braithwaite, were also recognized for their pioneering accomplishments.
Other honourees were Canada’s first Black vice-regal Lincoln Alexander, who graduated from Osgoode Hall in 1953; George Carter, who in 1976 became the first Canadian-born Black judge; Canada’s first female Black judge, Corrine Sparks; Julius Isaac, who was Canada’s first Black Chief Justice and the first Black to be named to the federal Court of Canada; British Columbia’s first Black judge, Selwyn Romilly; Joanne St. Lewis who is the first Black woman bencher; Canada’s first Black male senator, Donald Oliver, who was called to the Bar of Nova Scotia in 1965; and Michael Tulloch, who last July was sworn in as the first Black judge in the 145-year history of the Ontario Court of Appeal.
“This year, we celebrate a small sampling of Black lawyers who were the first to break ground for us in the law and related disciplines,” said CABL president, Andrew Alleyne. “They showed us what hard work, dedication and perseverance can accomplish.”
Since its inception, the CABL has collaborated with the University of Windsor Faculty of Law to establish the Julius Isaac Memorial scholarship, recognized Black Bay Street partners, Canada’s Black judges and Black women who have positively contributed to law and the legal profession in Canada, and made submissions on legal, equity and social justice issues to the federal and provincial governments.
In addition to paying tribute to the trailblazers, the CABL presented awards to Minister of Consumer Services, Margarett Best (Pathfinder); Arlene Henry (Community Service) and law partners, Yola Grant and Kim Bernhardt (Traditional Practice).
“When we were first informed of this award, my first question was ‘what tradition?’” said Grant, who was called to the Ontario Bar in 1989. “We spend a lot of time speaking about non-traditional areas of practice just to ensure that everybody feels comfortable. There’s a lot to do with the law and there are a lot of entry points. You really don’t need the Bay Street experience. You need self-confidence, some smarts, mentors and networks. There are many ways to approach the law.”
Bernhardt, who taught in the United Arab Emirates and was an Ontario Human Rights Commission investigator, and Grant joined forces 12 years ago.
“We practice in the same areas of law, so we decided to come together instead of seeing each other as the competition, and function as a nucleus to attract more clients,” Grant said.
Grant and Bernhardt practice in the areas of employment, labour relations, constitutional, equality, non-profit board governance and human rights law.
Called to the British Columbia Bar in 1986, Henry is a mediator, parenting coordinator, child interviewer, adjudicator, instructor and dispute resolution coach. For the past two decades, her practice has focused primarily on working with First Nations people.
Best, who was called to the Bar in 1995 and ran a practice specializing in family law and real estate for nearly 12 years before entering politics, dedicated the award to her older sister, Claire, who raised her and two other siblings after their mother passed away when she was just 11 years old. Their father was unable to care for the children at the time.
“Claire was just 22 with four children, but she did not turn her back on us,” recalled Best, who juggled two jobs to put herself through law school. “She took us into her home and provided the necessities to make us comfortable.”