Three Canadians who made trailblazers in the legal community honoured at an event held in partnership with Ryerson’s Black Law Students’ Association
Ryerson’s Faculty of Law celebrated Black History Month by hosting an online event Thursday honouring three trailblazers in Canada’s legal community — Juanita Westmoreland-Traorė, Lincoln Alexander and Charles Roach.
Charlene Theodore, president of the Ontario Bar Association, hosted a conversation with a distinguished panel of judges. Michael Tulloch, Lori-Anne Thomas, Harry LaForme and Gregory Regis spoke to an audience of over 200 participants about the lives and contributions of those being honoured.
Tulloch, who now sits on the Ontario Court of Appeal, provided the historical context of his time period when he started out as a law student at Osgoode Hall in 1986.
“Back in the ‘80s, those of us that were not white felt a real insidiousness of racial discrimination, both directly and indirectly,” said Tulloch.
But he said Westmoreland-Traorė became extremely influential to him, and other law students, by providing outlets for frank and open conversations around issues of rights and discrimination.
Westmoreland-Traorė was the first Black judge in the history of Quebec and the first Black person to be dean of a Canadian law school.
Thomas, who was appointed to the Ontario court of justice last fall, said describing Westmoreland-Traorė as a trailblazer is an understatement. She said Westmoreland-Traorė has accomplished so much more.
Thomas said she believes that Westmoreland-Traorė’s experience of immigrating to Canada and being raised by a single parent and extended family defined her and gave her the confidence to strive and achieve in the field of law.
“No one breaks a glass ceiling without getting cut,” said Thomas.
A touching moment occurred when Theodore paused the discussion to read a message from the widow of Lincoln Alexander, thanking the panel for sharing their comments and their memoires.
Alexander, who was Canada’s first Black member of Parliament and first Black federal cabinet minister, would later become Ontario’s lieutenant-governor.
LaForme said it was in that role where he first met Alexander. LaForme said he was representing an Indigenous organization and found Alexander to be friendly, gracious and someone who would really listen to Indigenous concerns.
LaForme, who when he was appointed to the Ontario Court of Appeal became the first Indigenous person to sit on a Canadian appellate court, said what he remembers the most is the humour and camaraderie that emerged between Alexander and the Indigenous representatives. “Laughter becomes a sort of tool to address things like racism,” said LaForme.
Regis, who sat on the Ontario Court of Justice, discussed how he and Charles Roach took different approaches to addressing anti-Black racism in Toronto. Roach’s advocacy in the ‘70s and ‘80s was born out of a context in which unarmed Black men were killed by police, said Regis.
“The significance of Charles Roach cannot be lost on future lawyers and future activists,” said Regis.
Regis said he admired Roach — a civil rights lawyer and an activist in Toronto’s Black community — for his community organization and for being a champion of the Black Canadian community.
Founding co-presidents of Ryerson’s Black Law Students’ Association, Shanelle Dover and Sofia Thompson, thanked the panel for their inspirational discussion.