By Thomas Gallezot
Usually, when I want to speak with a distinguished figure such as Tamara Thermitus, I first send an email introducing myself. I don’t expect a reply, but I use the email as the basis for a telephone follow-up a few days later. This time, however, I had barely clicked the “Send” button when my phone started ringing. It was her.
Needless to say, I was more than a little intimidated. A lawyer in the Ministry of Justice Canada, Tamara Thermitus has served as Director of Policy and Strategic Planning for the Office of Indian Residential Schools Resolution Canada. As main negotiator for the federal government, she helped define the mandate of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada and played a key role in the discussions leading to the historic settlement that was reached. In 2011, she became the first black woman and the first Ministry of Justice Canada lawyer to receive a Prix Mérite from the Quebec Bar. She was also one of the first jurists to focus public attention on issues of racial discrimination within her profession.
But when I hung up the phone a good half-hour later, I felt like I had just been talking to an old friend. Tamara is one of those rare individuals who prefers to share with others instead of trying to impress them.
Born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Tamara moved to Sept-Îles in Quebec with her family in 1967. That was where she grew up, completely immersed in Quebec society. At that time, there were no other families of Haitian origin in the area. One might think that her experience played a key role in making her aware of the damage caused by systematic discrimination. In reality, though, it was mainly the intolerance suffered by First Nations people that shocked her as a child and opened her eyes to the prejudice and discrimination that exists toward victims of racism.
That does not mean, however, that her integration into Quebec society was entirely seamless. When she was a student at CÉGEP de Sept-Îles, for instance, a guidance counsellor told her that, despite her excellent academic record, she would never be accepted into law school. This instance of discrimination, while probably unintentional, could have discouraged her—but instead, it strengthened her resolve to become a lawyer.
Despite all that she has already accomplished and the progress that her actions have helped make possible, she insists that she is not driven by the ambition to change the world but simply by the desire to do her duty as a citizen. Having come from a very impoverished country, she considers herself extremely fortunate, and from an early age, she wanted to give something back.
At heart, what motivates her is the desire to ensure that her time on Earth is not in vain by helping, as best she can, to make our world a better place to live in. That is why she prefers not to dwell on what has already happened but to focus on what still needs to be done. It makes her uncomfortable when people bring up the honours she has received; she would rather talk about others instead.
One day, on a TV show, a journalist asked her if she had a role model who influenced her actions. No doubt she expected Tamara to mention someone famous. Instead, Tamara named her mother. This exceptional woman unfortunately did not have the chance to pursue her own education when she was younger—but she provided Tamara with a strong sense of values, self-confidence and, above all, a lot of love. It’s that love which keeps Tamara going.