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When Justin called: Wanda Thomas Bernard talks about her new job as senator

The first African-Nova Scotian woman to serve in Canada’s Senate will keep up her work on equity issues.

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Wanda Thomas Bernard - CONTRIBUTED
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Last Wednesday evening, Wanda Thomas Bernard's phone rang. Justin Trudeau was on the other end. Bernard says he told her he’d reviewed her application and wanted her in the Senate. Bernard, of East Preston, is one of two Nova Scotians recently appointed as Canada's newest senators. Working at Dalhousie University for almost three decades, Bernard is currently teaching at Dal’s School of Social Work (where she was director from 2001-2011).

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How did it feel to get that call?
Oh, it was surreal, because I wasn’t expecting it. Of course, I had applied—I had gone through about two weeks of really in-depth screening and had only finished the last step on Wednesday afternoon. Then, I got an e-mail saying: “Would you be available for a phone call between four and seven?” and I said yes. My expectation was it would be someone calling me to tell me what the next steps were. And to my surprise…It was prime minister Trudeau.

That must have been a pretty big surprise. Why did you apply to be part of the Senate?
I applied because I had been hearing about the Senate reform and modernization, as they’re calling it. I was interested in this new process where you apply as opposed to being appointed. And I thought, let me check this. Let me see how serious they are about this.

On the other level, it was [because] I do have something to offer: my 40 years of the ground in various contexts working on social justice issues. Working for equity issues, working on women’s rights issues, on anti-racism issues. All of that work, I felt, was a lens—a body of work that could help inform social policy development in the country.

The third point is actually many people were contacting me and encouraging me to apply. One person actually said, “I’d like to see one of the next senators from Nova Scotia be from East Preston, and I think that could be you.”

You spoke about your work on social justice and equity in particular. What does it mean to you to be the first African-Nova Scotian woman to serve on the Senate?
First of all, it’s long overdue. In 2016, for me to be a first—on one hand, yes, we celebrate it. But on the other hand, I’m thinking this is long overdue. When I think about all the great work of many who’ve gone before me—work that has been invisible, that hasn’t been recognized – when I think about the fact that we haven’t been given the kind of opportunity that others in this country have been. And people of African descent in Nova Scotia have been here since the 1600s. So, part of me is saying, it’s about time.

How do you think your background in social work will help you in this new role?
I think it will help to keep me grounded. I know that because I’m there, I’m giving space for voice, for people whose voices are typically unheard. And I’m not just talking about the people of African descent. I’m thinking about people who live in poverty, thinking about women who live on the margins, thinking about people who struggle with day-to-day issues in their lives. I’m talking about people from the queer community who have to fight just to have their rights recognized in this country and have had to do so for so long.

Is there anything else you’d like to touch on?
The outpouring of positive support for my appointment has been wonderful and overwhelming, but so appreciated by myself and my family. Although I know it’s an appointment, it’s an appointment I feel has definitely been affirmed by Nova Scotia, and certainly affirmed by the community of East Preston.

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