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February 2019

Sister Dorothy Moore

Sister Dorothy Moore

Sister Dorothy Moore’s family lived in Membertou—“the unknown section of Sydney at that time”—the entire time she was growing up. However, as a young girl, she ended up staying in a number of different communities to get an education. And that was an education in human nature—cruel and loving—as much as it was a conventional school education.

In her early years, she attended the one-room schoolhouse in Membertou. During that time, the Indian agent picked young Dorothy Moore to attend residential school in Shubenacadie. She was there for two years. “I don’t have happy memories of residential school,” she says. “But I survived it and it’s part of my history.” Some 75 years later, she still has vivid memories from that time, from being beaten with a ruler and a pointer on her first day in the classroom … to receiving a beautiful doll from her family for Christmas and never being allowed to hold it … to sitting alone outside the imposing structure and trying to remember the layout of her cozy home back in Membertou by sketching in the dirt with a stick.

“I was number 44,” says Sister Dorothy in her story. “There’s some things you don’t forget.”

After two years in Shubenacadie, she returned to Membertou, but the school there only went up to Grade 6, and Dorothy Moore was an intelligent girl who craved further learning. She ended up attending a new school in Eskasoni for Grade 7. But then she decided to return home and go to St. Joseph’s School in Sydney. No other Mi’kmaw student had attended a Sydney public school and her parents discouraged her from doing so. But she was headstrong. “I always say I was the first one to jump the … Membertou fence,” she says.

Grade 8 went well. But Grade 9 was a different story. In a dramatic incident Sister Dorothy recalls in her story, she was told to “go back to the backwoods where you belong” and was kicked out of school. But she persevered and found a spot at a boarding school in Mabou, where she stayed for two years. She returned to Sydney for her final year of school, becoming the first Mi’kmaw student to attend Holy Angels High School.

From there, Dorothy Moore became the first Mi’kmaw nun—again against her parents’ wishes. She went on to earn a teaching certificate, bachelor’s degrees in arts and education, and a master’s degree in education. She was a teacher and principal for decades, the native education co-ordinator at Cape Breton University and the provincial education department’s director of Mi’kmaw services.

Her honours include the Order of Nova Scotia, the Order of Canada, and three honorary degrees.

Sister Dorothy’s mother Mary Eliza Sylliboy was raised on a successful farm in Whycocomagh. But her father Noel Moore grew up poor. He and his mother were two of the approximately 125 people forced in the 1920s to move from Membertou’s original location along Sydney Harbour to its present location. Despite early struggles, he became a successful entrepreneur in the floor sanding business. And he remained fiercely proud of his culture and insisted his children speak Mi’kmaw. When he died while working at the age of 79 in 1974, Sister Dorothy said she became a “born-again Mi’kmaw” who has “never stopped working for my people.”

Today, at the age of 85, she lives alone in a duplex on Alexandra Street in Sydney, on Membertou’s doorstep. But the monthly planner she keeps next to her recliner is chock full, she’s on the road almost every day and she’s still working hard for her people.

This is only a short introduction to Sister Dorothy’s much longer story.

To read Sister Dorothy’s compelling life story in her own words—interspersed with plenty of great photographs—please consider subscribing to Backstory NS for just $40 per year (tax included). That includes 26 in-depth stories per year from notable Nova Scotians based on old-fashioned personal visits. There’ll be a new story every two weeks, and the entire collection will be available to our subscribers to read and reread whenever you wish. Your valued support will ensure these stories are collected and shared for years to come. Thank you.

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Senator Wanda Thomas Bernard

Senator Wanda Thomas Bernard

Senator Wanda Thomas Bernard of East Preston says she tends “to remember the really horrible, hard things.” And having grown up Black in Nova Scotia in the 1950s and 1960s, there are plenty of such things to remember. Particularly difficult was the late summer of 1965 when, at the age of 12, she both lost her father in a horrific car accident and “left the comfort and safety” of the segregated Partridge River School in East Preston to attend the integrated Graham Creighton High School in Cherry Brook. Adding to her burden at that time was the fact that she had an altercation with her father on the morning of the day that he died. She tells that story in haunting detail.

However, anyone who knows Senator Bernard knows that she also has a keen sense of humour. She’s a natural storyteller and even when relating a sad or disturbing anecdote, she tends to lighten it with laughter.

She knew what she calls “the taste of poverty,” especially after her father died, leaving her young mother to raise “a family of 13” including her own 10 children, a godchild and two grandchildren. However, the Thomas family was not alone. As Senator Bernard says, the people of East Preston—which was settled and built by people of African descent—“come and support” when there’s a loss or tragedy. Her widowed paternal grandfather William Benson Thomas was especially helpful. And a young Wanda Thomas drew strength and inspiration in particular from her mother Marguerite and her maternal grandmother Inez Slawter.

Despite experiencing depression and racism at a young age, Wanda Thomas excelled in school. And with the help of a man named Don Denison, she enrolled at Mount Saint Vincent University at age 15. However, she wasn’t ready for university life. She “flunked out” in her first year and got work at a Dalhousie University cafeteria by calling into a radio phone-in show.

After two years, she was given a second chance at university, eventually earning a bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree and a PhD. She made her mark as a long-practising social worker, professor and director. Her honours include the Order of Nova Scotia and the Order of Canada. And she was appointed to the Senate in 2016. But that’s just the bare-bones resume. She puts flesh on those bones by telling stories—about the day that led to her becoming an active Christian as a young mother, about the hurtful incident that made the Bernards decide to leave their longtime home in Cole Harbour and settle in East Preston, about becoming a senator and much more.

This is only a short introduction to Senator Bernard’s much longer story.

To read Senator Bernard’s compelling life story in her own words—interspersed with plenty of great photographs—please consider subscribing to Backstory NS for just $40 per year (tax included). That includes 26 in-depth stories per year from notable Nova Scotians based on old-fashioned personal visits. There’ll be a new story every two weeks, and the entire collection will be available to our subscribers to read and reread whenever you wish. Your valued support will ensure these stories are collected and shared for years to come. Thank you.

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