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Anne-Marie Trahan.Kevin Calixte/Supplied

In red-framed prescription glasses, with a constant smile, strong Catholic faith and ferocious work ethic, retired Quebec Superior Court Judge Anne-Marie Trahan brought a joyously operatic approach to the oft-dry world of statutes, civil codes and stuffy traditions. As a champion of women, of children and even of struggling opera singers, she was at once modest and a diva in the best sense of the word – a leader who friends and colleagues said lived her life by example and tried to see the good in everyone around her.

“Even if you disagreed with her, or your client disagreed with her, she was always inclusive, interested and interesting,” said Brian Mitchell, a former bâtonnier, or head, of the Montreal Bar. “She lived her faith every day of her life.”

In March, Christian Lépine, the archbishop of Montreal, asked the retired judge, who sat on the executive council of the Order of Malta of Canada as the Dame of Magistral Grace, to comb through 70 years’ worth of archives to determine the number and nature of cases of alleged sexual abuse committed against minors in five Catholic dioceses throughout the province. The audit, which promised to be difficult, upsetting and time-consuming, was to begin in September and last from 18 to 24 months. But Ms. Trahan died at her home in Outremont, Que., on July 12, barely two months after being diagnosed with a virulent, incurable cancer. She was 72.

“She will be forever remembered for her rigour and her concern for the rights of vulnerable people,” the archbishop told the online legal publication

Last month the Quebec Bar awarded Ms. Trahan with the Mérite Christine-Tourigny, given each year to a member for his or her involvement in social issues, especially the advancement of women in the profession.

Nancy Cleman first met Ms. Trahan in the mid-1980s, when she was a junior lawyer practising maritime law. “Anne-Marie was presiding over a hearing at the water transport board, where the four senior lawyers were all men, as was usual,” she recalled. “But there were four women juniors, which was unheard of, and to mark the occasion, she gave us all a token, a button imprinted with the number '4′ and a piece of metal she had engraved with the date.”

Anne-Marie Trahan was born in Montreal on July 27, 1946, the eldest of Marcel Trahan and Emélie Bourbonnière’s three children. Her father was a Quebec Youth Court judge and her mother, a social worker by training who remained at home to care for the family. The family lived in Outremont, a neighbourhood nestled against the eastern flank of Mount Royal in the heart of the city.

While she was growing up, books and music filled the house. There were piano lessons, complete with the repetitive practise of scales. Anne-Marie’s father, who took care of the children on Saturdays when their mother was out shopping, was wont to listen to live radio broadcasts from the Metropolitan Opera. Although he himself couldn’t carry a note, she told journalist Frédéric Cardin in an interview in June, 2018, that there were singers in her father’s family, including one who had sung for the Opéra de Paris.

She listened to opera with her maternal grandfather, too. “Listen to how they sing with such passion,” he would tell her. And she did, the music carrying her away to new, exotic worlds that somehow also seemed familiar. Worlds where women’s rights were trampled on; where people schemed, dreamed, triumphed and tragically died. Where characters such as Georges Bizet’s Carmen stood up for herself, only to be killed by the man who professed to love her, and where Leonore, in Beethoven’s Fidelio, determinedly disguises herself as a prison guard to save her husband from prison.

For young Anne-Marie, the world itself was an opera and she nurtured her love for it all her life. She even presided over a conference last year that explored the links between opera and the law.

“Take the case of Tosca,” she told Mr. Cardin in that same interview, referring to the Puccini masterpiece. “It’s an opera that was composed at the time the first international conventions against torture were being written, after the Crimean War. One of the librettists was a lawyer and he was surely aware of [the conventions].”

Ms. Trahan could quote Cesare Bonesana di Beccaria, the 18th-century Italian criminologist, philosopher and politician whom many consider the most talented jurist and legal thinker in the Age of Enlightenment, as easily as she could a line from Verdi. Indeed, she said to Mr. Cardin that the Verdi opera Aida, which was first performed in 1871, raised ideas the philosopher had written about a century earlier, including the rights of an accused to remain silent and mount a full and fair defence.

She was a stellar student, completing her law degree at the University of Montreal in 1967. She was admitted to the Quebec Bar the following year, joining the Montreal firm, Lavéry de Billy as an associate. In 1979, she left to work in a number of public-service positions, including one in the commercial law division of the United Nations in Vienna. In 1981, she was appointed to sit on the Canadian Transport Commission; four years later, she became president of its water transport board. From 1986 to 1994, she was an associate deputy minister in the federal Ministry of Justice, working to bring federal legislation in line with Quebec civil law right around the time the province’s new civil code was being adopted.

On July 5, 1994, she was appointed to the bench of the Quebec Superior Court, presiding over civil and family law cases until her retirement on July 30, 2010.

“She was so hard-working and modest, never bragging about her accomplishments,” Ms. Cleman said. “I often said to her, ‘I don’t know how you do what you do because there doesn’t seem to be enough hours in the day.' The lessons she taught me and others were to be kind and watch out for people. Or, as I think of it, to simply emulate her.”

Although she never married or had children, her youngest brother, Dominique Trahan, a criminal lawyer who worked in youth division of the provincial legal aid department, said his sister was fun and lighthearted.

“I was the only one of us to have to have children and she was the best babysitter we could ever get and the best godmother to our son,” he said. “Even in the week before she died, we were with her and laughing. She just brought joy to everyone.”

Predeceased by her brother Etienne, Ms. Trahan leaves her brother Dominique, three nieces, a nephew and a host of others in the legal and cultural worlds who are still reeling from her sudden death.

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