How Senator Dr. Wanda Thomas Bernard Is Committed To Building A Better Future For Marginalized Communities
Meet the 2023 Top 25 Women of Influence Lifetime Achievement Award Recipient
By Sarah Kelsey
Nova Scotian Senator Wanda Thomas Bernard knew what racism was as a child (“of course I did”), but it wasn’t until she left the shelter of her segregated school in East Preston to venture into an integrated one in Grade 8 that she, herself, was an overt victim of racial discrimination.
“I was already experiencing immense trauma from losing my dad [who had died in a tragic car accident days before], and I remember the teacher doing the roll call. My maiden name was Thomas. When she got to my name she looked up from her register and saw me,” she says.
At the time, classes were academically streamed, meaning the students with the highest grades ended up in class A, with the next “brightest” landing in class B and so on. She was the only Black child placed in Grade 8A.
“The teacher looked at me and, without pausing, said, ‘Oh, I think we may have made a mistake. I don’t think you’re supposed to be in this class.’” she recalls. The words stung. “At that moment, I recognized racism and I knew it was wrong.”
Instead of succumbing to her pain or focusing on the back-to-back traumas she had just experienced, she says she tapped into an inner voice that told her she could do more.
She used it as fuel to become more determined in her conviction that Black people, Indigenous people, people with disabilities, and LGBTQ2+ people belonged.
Today, Senator Bernard is a highly regarded social worker, educator, researcher, community activist, and advocate for social change.
She is the first African Nova Scotian to hold a tenure track position at Dalhousie University and to become a full professor at the school.
She has received many honours and accolades, including the Order of Nova Scotia and the Order of Canada.
She is the Liaison of the Progressive Senate Group, a collective on Parliament Hill that seeks to promote progressive values on proposed legislation by the government.
She is also the 2023 recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award presented by Women of Influence+.
Journey from a segregated Nova Scotia to the Senate.
Senator Bernard grew up poor in East Preston in a home filled with love, but also a space where abuse was allowed to flourish, in Nova Scotia in the 1950s and 1960s. The community, which was an area settled and built by people of African descent, was a collective; when one family experienced hardship, people rallied to support them.
After her father passed away, her young mother raised the family of 13 — which included her own 10 children, a godchild, and two grandchildren.
Senator Bernard describes the death of her father as a defining moment in her life, one that compelled her to step up and do the things around the home that needed doing to help her mother and siblings, continuing this role well into adulthood.
Less expressive and open to speaking her mind than her siblings, she excelled at school and at the age of 15 was given the opportunity to attend Mount Saint Vincent University thanks to a man named Don Denison.
A former captain in the Canadian Army, Denison came to know Senator Bernard’s family through the story of her father’s death; he wanted to help and just so happened to know the then president of the school. He advocated for the admission of Senator Bernard and her older sister — complete with a bursary — believing if given a chance, they would go on to do great things for their community.
The university agreed.
Unfortunately, the freedom that residence and unstructured time presented wasn’t something Senator Bernard was ready for at such a young age; she struggled, flunked out, and lost her educational funding.
Out of school and with limited job opportunities, she found work in the cafeteria at Dalhousie Medical School after calling into a radio talk show.
It’s there that another defining moment in her life happened: she overheard some of the conversations the students were having and realized she was just as capable and bright as they were. Invigorated, Senator Bernard approached the president of Mount Saint Vincent and asked them to reinstate her. They said yes.
The rest, as they say, is history.
She went on to complete a bachelor’s degree and then her masters in social work. She also got married, had children, and became heavily involved in her community, working with and learning from local activists.
“My formal education has certainly helped prepare me for my work, but simultaneously, that community education — that civil and human rights education — that journey was equally important,” she says.
As her desire to give back and do more grew, she began to work with provincial organizations to bring diversity into the political processes of Nova Scotia and alongside community members to educate and engage citizens about local politics.
She co-founded the Association of Black Social Workers (ABSW), which helps address the needs of marginalized citizens, and worked with the Nova Scotia Advisory Council on the Status of Women.
Eventually, Dalhousie University offered her the opportunity of a tenure-track professor position. To receive tenure, she had to find a university that would allow her to complete a PhD — many at the time were both racist and sexist. With the help of a friend and professor, she was accepted into the University of Sheffield joint-location PhD program. Once wrapped, she became a full professor and went on to work at Dalhousie for over 27 years, now holding the title of professor emeritus.
In 2015, Senator Bernard decided to apply to become a Senator as a test. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had just announced that a new merit-based process would be used to appoint Senators, something she didn’t believe would work. At the time, there were two vacancies in Nova Scotia.
Senator Bernard didn’t think she had a shot at a position, but on the 11th anniversary of the day of her mother’s death, the prime minister called her offering his congratulations. She was sworn in on November 16, 2016 as an independent.
Senator Bernard has since gone on to advocate for the rights of marginalized citizens on a national level, served as a member of the National Coalition of Advisory Councils on the Status of Women, and has been an expert witness in human rights cases brought forth across the country.
Her next goal, as the Liaison of the Progressive Senate Group, is to drive tangible change in a few key areas on Parliament Hill.
The issues at hand.
One of the issues Senator Bernard is passionately focused on moving forward in her new role is the creation of a guaranteed liveable income. If we had it, she says, some of the other issues we’re currently facing as a society would be a lot easier to address.
Homelessness, precarious housing, mental health and well-being, access to health care, and violence are all impacted by income. She wants to find ways to be more proactive to these issues as opposed to reactive.
There are, however, two problems.
One is partisanship.
“There is such a strong emphasis on partisanship and it would be wonderful if we could engage more in political processes without partisanship being the rule,” Senator Bernard says of the current state of affairs. “If we could focus more on the issues and realize there is nothing wrong with people having different perspectives, we could come together to create change. We, as federal Parliamentarians, have a lot of responsibility for the entire country to do this.”
The other is it’s easier to blame people for their life circumstances than change legislation.
“There’s a lot of bias. There’s a lot of stigma. There’s a lot of discrimination toward the poor. There’s a lot of victim-blaming. I think about issues of poverty, for example, and I think about the overrepresentation of racialized and Indigenous people and persons with disabilities who are also living in poverty — those are issues we need to address immediately. We cannot adequately address them if our starting place is victimhood.”
Creating an environment where change can happen.
Though there are issues, Senator Bernard knows change is possible.
“We’re living in a time where our democracy is being questioned every single day and people’s rights are infringed upon every single day,” she says. “We have a duty and responsibility to address these issues. We have a responsibility to bring marginalized voices in. Being a part of the leadership team of the Progressive Senate Group, by my very presence, I will be speaking to issues of justice and change.”
On a societal level, she says a starting place for change is having difficult conversations and acknowledging our own biases, where they’re rooted, how they’re rooted, and creating more awareness of the reality of what’s happening outside our own bubble.
“There needs to be a way to sensitize people so they can see things from different perspectives. If we only see things from a perspective that we know and that we’re comfortable with, then we don’t understand it — we don’t walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.”
She thinks back to her career as a teacher and how she created opportunities for students to step outside their comfort zones. The goal was to give them a sense of the kinds of oppression many of their fellow students and colleagues face daily. Empathy and a desire to advocate for change, she notes, begins with understanding.
While this kind of empathy isn’t absent on Parliament Hill, she admits it’s “a very privileged space” and believes most Parliamentarians would benefit from experiencing the reality of marginalized citizens.
She recounts a recent experience she had in the Rideau Centre, as an example. A white male approached her and said, “I want you to know I believe in segregation.”
It was stated in such an aggressive tone that she was left speechless.
“It was so horrific to have someone just randomly say that to me in the middle of the day in a public space and to think it was quite OK,” she says. “I didn’t feel that it would be safe to engage with him, but as I step back, I [realize] how violent it was. There’s a violence to racism, and people don’t quite understand what that means. Basically, that person was telling me I shouldn’t have been in that space.”
It’s experiences like these that people — all of us — need to better understand and discourage; we need to discuss how they impact individuals. From there, we need to ensure our Parliamentarians are discussing and debating laws and policies from the perspective of everyone and taking all realities into account.
Having done so much, and with so many things she still wants to accomplish, Senator Bernard says she’s fuelled to do more by thinking about her ancestors.
“I stand on the shoulders of my ancestors, ancestors who were brought to this country not by choice; ancestors who were placed on Turtle Island; we can’t be called settlers in this country because we were settled here. So as a member of this settled group, I, quite frankly, am in awe of them,” she says. “I’m in awe of how they lived and worked on this land to help build this country without recognition, without affirmation, without even really being treated as full citizens and full human beings. The fact that they made a way out of no way. The fact that they continued to fight against the odds, that gives me such incredible inspiration. It gives me inspiration and hope for our future.”
She likes to think a virtual torch has been passed to her, especially as a child of the Civil Rights era.
“I was given opportunities, and those opportunities were not to do great and wonderful things for Wanda Thomas Bernard. The opportunity, the privilege I was given was to see what I could do to leave this country, this province, better than what I inherited. That’s what drives me every single day.”
To cope with the energy drain that goes along with advocacy work, she says she focuses on self-care.
“One of the things that has been missing from our work, our past work, is the whole idea of self-care. We haven’t paid enough attention to it,” she says. “Activism work takes a toll on your body and it leaves a hole both mentally and emotionally; there’s always something that’s depleting your cup. You need to find ways to replenish.”
For her, that looks like opening up to her orbit of individuals who she can talk to about incidents safely. For others, it will look different. By doing this, she says she can look forward to what’s next.
“Every action I take is rooted in a critical analysis that always takes me back to my ancestors and how they fought with so little, but left such a powerful legacy,” Senator Bernard says. “I live their legacy. I live their hopes and dreams, and so I have a duty and responsibility to work in the spaces that I’m in to make things different for the generations coming behind me.”
Join us on Tuesday, April 4, 2023 for the Top 25 Women of Influence Awards hosted at the Shangri-la in Toronto, Ontario. We will be having a fireside chat with Senator Wanda Thomas Bernard and celebrating the Top 25 recipients! Tickets go on sale February 21, 2023. If you are interested in purchasing a table, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.