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.
(When and where were you were born?) In this community of East Preston. I think I was actually born at the Grace Maternity Hospital in Halifax, but this community was home. My birthdate is August 1st, 1953. I’ve just had a milestone birthday—65. I’m sort of in the middle of quite a large family. My Mum and Dad had 10 children, but they also raised two of their grandchildren and my mother raised her godchild who came to live with us when her parents died very young. So I always say I’m from a family of 13.
(This was your grandparents’ property here, but your family home was …) Just down the road from here. Both my parents are from this community of East Preston.
I’ll start with my father, which would be a switch, because I’m always talking about my mother. My father’s name was James Albert Thomas. He was born in this community as well. And just a bit about his background, I think he was one of about 12 or 13 children himself and he would have been one of the older of the children in his family. But his father’s father was from Wales and his father’s mother was from this community.
His father was very well-known in the community. William Benson Thomas. And one of the stories that I love to tell about him was that at the age of 12, he was working with his father and his father was the church clerk. And so at the age of 12, he became the assistant clerk. And when his father died, he became the clerk and I think he was the clerk for years, maybe something like 30 or 40 years. But he started that young. And so he was a very community-minded, community-spirited person. We lived across the road from my grandfather. I remember him when I was growing up and he was quite an amazing man. Young people in the community really liked him. He had a special spot, I think, for young people.
(This is your father’s father?) My father’s father. (His father came from Wales?) Yes, so there were four brothers that came from Wales. (How did that work?) Why did they come here? I don’t really know that history very well. I need to find out. But the story that I have, there were four brothers that left Wales and made their way here to North America. And two of those brothers married Black women. One of them lived in East Preston. The other one settled in Halifax.
(These were white men?) Yes. These two white men married Black women. Two brothers married white women. The brothers who married white women cut off contact with the brothers who married Black women. So we see a very clear racial division that happened in that generation. And so there are white Thomases here—who are my relatives—who I have no idea who they are. And they have no idea who I am.
But I might have actually met (a relative) recently. I mean, I’m all over the place, so I don’t know where I met this person. But I was sharing this story in a speech, I think, and this woman said, ‘Oh my God, I heard that story.’ But she heard it from the white contingent and it was framed very differently. And I think the story went something like, ‘Yeah, they had these two brothers that sort of wandered off into the woods and they were never seen again.’ Well, the woods happened to be the Black communities. (Laughter). I wish I had kept her contact information, even got her name or something. But she was blown away as I was telling this story and she’s realizing she heard a similar story with a very different outcome. But that’s certainly the story as we know it. And when I think about race and racism in this province, I’m inclined to believe the story that my ancestors told, that they were cut off, that they were no longer able to be connected. Really, they weren’t allowed to be connected because they dared …
And there was someone—I remember sharing the story at another time—and the person saying to me, ‘Well, are you sure they got married? Are you sure they were legal marriages?’ Yes, they were.
(Would there have been any question of acceptance from this community’s perspective?) Not at all.
So that’s my grandfather. Then my father, he didn’t go very far in school. He left school early to help out at home, help out on the farm. I think his father had a farm at some point. Then he went to work early. He was a labourer. He worked on a farm in Cole Harbour and then he became a bricklayer. In fact, he had a job doing reconstruction on Citadel Hill at one point. I remember hearing about that. But the most significant thing that I remember about my father was actually the fact that he was killed in a car accident. Days before he turned 40. August 1965 was when he was killed.
(You would have been 12?) Exactly. You know how you have defining moments in life? That was certainly one of my defining moments I remember very clearly.
My father was an alcoholic. It was drunk driving. It was him, my godfather was driving the car, and my father’s brother. The three of them were in the car together and (my godfather) was speeding. My uncle was sitting in the back seat. My godfather—the driver—was killed instantly. My father died two hours later in hospital. My uncle sustained a major brain injury and lived for 18 months and he never talked (coherently) again. The brain injury impacted him in that way. He used to have these outbursts where he’d say, ‘Slow down Bobby! Slow down Bobby!’ The driver, his name was Bobby. So that’s how we knew that he was speeding.
It was a single-car accident. So no one ran into them, they didn’t run into anyone. The car ran off the road and overturned a number of times. My father was actually on vacation but had taken another job. That was, I think, pretty common in those days. He’d gone to work on the Saturday. It was a Saturday. I remember it as though it happened yesterday. He’d gone to work. On the way home, he had groceries. There were groceries. I can still visualize the groceries strewn around the road. They were on their way home, but they didn’t come directly home. They stopped at a local tavern and were drinking.
(You actually saw the accident scene?) After the fact.
(Do you remember who told you or did somebody come to the house?) I remember a neighbour came and told us. So my mother and my older brother had to go. They didn’t know they were going to identify the body. By the time they got to Halifax and to the hospital, he had died. I remember my brother talking about this. He was 18. He said it was really hard to have to go and identify your father.
(He would have been the oldest boy?) Yes. There was a sister older than him, but he was the oldest boy.
(So you’re 12 years old. That’s a tough thing to happen at any age. How did you react?) It was particularly hard for me because on that morning I’d had an argument with my father. Now if you can imagine, the house was probably about one-eighth the size of this one, with 10, 12, 13 of us living there. But I remember we had an old wood stove. At the age of 12, I cooked breakfast for my father that morning—fried sausages and eggs.
(On the wood stove, like a range, with the firebox?) A wood stove. I remember it was an old white stove. You had to open the lid off the top and put the wood in. That’s where we cooked, you know. We cooked on the top of that thing. But I remember I fried eggs and sausages, and I burned the sausages. And my father was so angry with me. He yelled at me. He called me stupid, ‘Can’t you do anything right? You’re stupid.’ I said we had an argument. We didn’t have an argument. He yelled at me and I had an argument in my head, you know, ‘I shouldn’t be cooking your breakfast anyway. I wish you were dead.’
(So that’s probably the first thing that would have come back to you.) And it came back to me over and over. (You’d feel guilt?) Tremendous guilt. That took me years to deal with because I never told anyone about it. None of my siblings knew that I had this thought. A lot of my siblings were very expressive. If they had something to say, they would say it. I wasn’t so. I had more of the conversation in my head with myself. So I’d had this conversation with myself, ‘I wish you were dead.’ And he never came home.
The neighbour, George Tolliver, when he came over and told us, I remember thinking, ‘Oh my God. I didn’t really wish him to be dead. How did this happen?’ I was 12. There were many older siblings and many younger siblings. And in those days, 12-year-olds didn’t talk about grief. No one talked to us about grief and loss.
I mentioned already that my father was an alcoholic. And he was abusive. So I remember violence. I remember violent fights. I remember a lot of turmoil. So on one level, I was glad he had died. On another level, I felt this tremendous grief. And I can remember hearing my mother—I’ll never forget it actually—I remember her saying, ‘What am I going to do? How am I going to raise these children?’ The youngest was only 18 months old and we were like steps and stairs, a year or two between us. I’ll never forget Mum saying, ‘I don’t know what I’m going to do. I don’t know what I’m going to do.’ And I would hear her crying too. So for as much as they had a lot of turmoil in their marriage, he was the provider. At least he was there. There were two of them. And now it was just her. She was 39, so it must have been incredibly frightening for her and difficult.
So I’m cooking breakfast in the morning and I mess it up and get yelled at. I had an aunt who lived in Halifax. Her name was Ethel Brown. She was incredible, my absolute favourite on my mother’s side. She was my mother’s father’s sister, but she and my Mum were more like sisters. She never drove but she got someone to bring her out to our house immediately when she heard the news. And I remember her walking in the house and seeing me there. I was preparing the evening meal for the family.
(After you had this news?) That evening. She remembers me standing there peeling carrots. I was barely tall enough to reach the counter. She walks in the back door that comes into the kitchen. And so that was a story she told forever. At 12 years of age, I was preparing the evening meal for my family after our father had been killed. I don’t have many memories of my life up to that point. I have some but not a whole lot. But I know that at that point in time, I went into this mode of doing, contributing, giving back, helping—recognizing what needed to be done and then doing it. Mum had to rush off to deal with this bad news. And at the time, we didn’t know our father was dead. We just knew there was this bad accident and Mum had to go. Mum was gone. I just started getting dinner ready.
(But you wouldn’t have been the oldest of the girls?) No. (Were you responsible even from a young age?) As I said, I don’t have many memories prior to 12. But clearly, if I was cooking breakfast at 12, it wasn’t my first time to do it. If I was doing dinner at 12, it wasn’t my first time to do dinner or at least to be helping with dinner. But those were defining moments in my life in terms of what my life course would end up becoming.
(When you say there wasn’t a lot of memories before that, was this trauma part of losing memories or is there no explanation for that?) I think I blocked a lot of memories. I actually have a very good memory. I sometimes say I have the memory of an elephant. I remember too much and I tend to remember the really horrible, hard things. And for as much as I’ve tried to search for more positive memories, there aren’t a whole lot that come. But I do remember some things.
(Were there other people within the family that stepped in?) Absolutely, absolutely. So the 18-year-old brother that I mentioned, he stands out. (What was his name?) Ervin. He really stepped up and became a major helper, supporter. And the sister who was next to me, Valerie, she was two years older than me. I don’t know if we ever had a conversation about how we were going to do this, but I remember she took on a lot of the cleaning and I took on the cooking. And the two of us really just worked so well. We were a team. We worked really well together to keep the younger ones afloat.
(The youngest was just 18 months?) Yes, so I remember doing things like preparing meals and doing lunches and doing baths of these younger siblings. And doing hair for the younger girls, keeping their hair in braids. I remember all of those things. I know I did the braiding because my sister Valerie—later in life when she had two daughters—didn’t know how to braid their hair. (Laughter). I had one daughter and always kept her hair in amazing braids because I knew how to do that.
(You had lots of practice.) I had a lot of practice. A lot of younger sisters. And so I remember very clearly us working as a team. And my brother Ervin, he had a car. He used to drive Mum, take her for groceries. There were other older brothers but they didn’t seem to step in the way we did. And then the rest were all younger than me, actually.
Betty is the oldest in the family and she was raised mostly by my grandparents—my mother’s parents. My mother and father, they had her and Ervin before they got married. Mum was living with her parents with the two kids. And when she and Dad got married, her parents wouldn’t let her take her firstborn. (They were too attached?) Mmm. They said, ‘You can take the baby but you’re leaving her.’ I think Mum always had a lot of regret about that and a lot of sadness about that. And that decision certainly affected the relationships with that sibling.
(So, how did you deal with that over the years? Nowadays, there’d be grief counsellors.) I didn’t deal with it. I buried it. It affected me. Later in life, I would say, ‘Look, I have a button that you’re never allowed to push and that’s the stupid button.’ I had a lot of trust issues and it wasn’t really until I was a student in social work that I came to terms with it and started to deal with it. As a student, I sought counselling for myself. It was years later. So I sort of went through life—went through those early years—with this level of unresolved grief and trauma that had never been addressed.
You were asking about who helped. There were a number of people. I mean, this is a community where—even today—people respond when there’s a tragedy, when there’s a loss. It doesn’t even have to be a tragedy. Any type of loss, people will come and support. But in our instance, there were certainly people who were there, not just in the immediate but for the long-term. There were people that just stepped in to help us out. I remember people bringing us food, bringing us fresh vegetables.
One of the major people was our grandfather Thomas, who lived across the road. When there wasn’t enough food to stretch through the week, we would go to Granddad’s and it was like Granddad had a store. I was always over there borrowing something. ‘Granddad, can you loan us a cup of sugar or a loaf of bread or some milk?’ There was never a week that went by that we weren’t over there getting something from him. It could have been an onion to add to the meal or sugar or milk. And he never said no. He was so kind and so sweet. It was always, ‘Can we borrow this until Mum gets groceries?’ And when Mum got groceries, we never thought about it. (Laughter). Mum got groceries every Saturday. We never thought about paying Granddad back anything and he never asked for anything. He was just very kind.
(Were you close to either of your grandmothers?) My grandmother Thomas, who lived across the road, she died, I think, the year after I was born. So I never knew her. (Your father’s mother?) My father’s mother. I never knew her. Although my mother used to tell me that I reminded her of her and then she’d also tell me she didn’t like her very much. (Laughter). So that was not a conversation that we delved into very much.
(You wouldn’t encourage that?) No, I never encouraged that. She would say, ‘You’re so much like Margaret Thomas.’ I never asked because I never wanted to bring more pain to my mother. In one breath, she was saying, ‘You’re so much like Margaret Thomas.’ In the next breath, she was saying, ‘I never did like her.’ I’d think, ‘OK, we’re not going there.’ That’s another point I need to ask my uncle about. There’s only one of those siblings left. I need to have a conversation with him where I ask him about his mother. I know he was very close to his mother—I’ve heard him talk about their relationship. He was young when his mother died but I’m sure he remembers a lot about her.
My grandmother on the other side, who would’ve lived here—my mother’s mother—she was amazing. She was like a second mother to us. And when we were young, our mother used to bring us out to see her every week. We came out here every Wednesday for a visit. But it wasn’t just a visit. Mum, she used to help her with laundry, she used to help her with cooking. So I guess I learned early on that those were the things you did.
(Your grandmother, would she have been on her own by then?) No, no, my grandfather was still here. (It was just themselves?) My grandfather had a brother—his younger brother lived with them. When I look back on his life now—from the wisdom that I have now—I would say that my uncle probably had autism. And he worked the farm with my grandfather … or for my grandfather. I think he was the unpaid staff. But he would have been young when their parents died, and my grandfather and grandmother took him in.
(But your grandmother could really use your mother’s help?) Yes, I just remember us coming out here—the house used to be up there—and I remember lots of activity around laundry. Doing laundry, folding laundry, things like that.
(And what kind of lady was she, your mother’s mother?) She was really kind, quiet and loyal. Very determined woman. God-fearing, you know, she was very religious. I always felt that she was open. You could talk to her about anything. Later in life, I was the person who took her for medical appointments. I used to come to her house once a week and fill this little pill box for her. And filling prescriptions when they needed to be filled. She lived to be 90-something.
(So you were well into your adulthood?) Oh, I was married with a child, and I used to come and do that for my grandmother. Take her to her appointments. One of the things that was so funny, I’d take her grocery shopping. You notice if you drove through here (East Preston), there’s no supermarket. So you always had to go into town. I’d take her in, do her shopping and she’d want to pay me. It was always a two-dollar bill. (Laughter). I said, ‘No, you don’t need to pay me. I’m doing this for you because I love you and I want to do this.’ And she said, ‘No, no, you take it.’ And she’d take it and put it inside my bra. (Laughter). She’d insist!—‘You have to take this’—and it was two dollars. Sometimes I would have my daughter with me because it was a tradition that I wanted her to know about as well.
(Your grandmother, what was her name?) Inez Slawter. Her husband was James Slawter and he was a deacon in the church. So both my grandfathers were active in the community and active politically.
My grandfather Thomas was the church clerk, which would have put him in a leadership position. And then in terms of politics, he was the municipal councillor for a few years. And then my grandfather Slawter, he was a deacon in the church and politically he was very active in provincial and federal politics with the Conservatives. I don’t hold that against him. (Laughter).
One of the senators that I met knew him well. My grandfather would have campaigned for him. Senator Tom McInnis (a former Progressive Conservative MLA for the Halifax Eastern Shore electoral district). When I joined the Senate, he said, ‘I wanted to ask you if you knew Jim Slawter?’ That was my grandfather! So we share a little chuckle over that—how small the world is.
(What is a deacon?) It would be the people who support the minister. Deacons would be part of the leadership team. A minister would be ordained. Deacons are commissioned. (And that would have been in the Baptist church?) Yeah, right here. The East Preston Baptist Church. (That’s the same church …) That I go to now.
(How important was the church in your younger years?) Very important. The church would have been very, very important. I remember going to Sunday school, I remember as a young adult going to the church. But I never joined the church. I always had a lot of criticism of what I saw in the church and what I saw outside of the church. I always saw some disconnects. (Like hypocrisy?) Yes. Even with my (maternal) grandfather. He wasn’t the nicest person to us. He and my mother did not have a very good relationship. My mother’s relationship with her mother was amazing. She did not have a good relationship with her father and that continued even after our father died. He didn’t step up and help the way I would have expected him to.
(And when you say joined the church, what does that mean?) To become a member of the church. If we’re Baptist, you have ‘believer’s baptism’—it’s baptism by total immersion. (So that would be a decision you would make maybe in your early teens?) Many people did. I didn’t. I was an adult, married, had a child, step-children before I made a decision to become baptized.
(Would it be considered rebellious not to join the church?) Absolutely. ‘What’s wrong with you?’ That was my little rebellion. (And that would have been kind of unique at that time?) Yes. For me, as I look back now—this is my adult self looking back—I didn’t want to just fall in line because everyone else was doing it. It had to have real meaning. And at that time in my life, when I was a teenager, it didn’t. And of course, when I look back now, I recall that my father died when I was 12 and I went through those years of just having all this unresolved grief and depression. I experienced depression.
One of the things I didn’t talk about earlier was the fact that in addition to my father dying when I was 12—that happened at the end of August—within a week or so, in September, I started at a new integrated school. So I went from the comfort and safety of the segregated school—Partridge River School—to the integrated Graham Creighton High School. I was in Grade 8. I was placed in Grade 8A. I was the only Black student in 8A and everybody questioned why I was there.
(The students?) The students, the teachers. (Where was that school?) It’s down at Cherry Brook Road. It’s a bus ride from here. I experienced so much racism and this at the same time that I’m also grieving the loss of my father who I wished dead anyway. So those years were really tough years.
(The Partridge River School …) That was the elementary school. That was a segregated school. (Was it officially segregated?) Yes. I think it was 1964 when the kids from this community started going into Graham Creighton.
(Do you remember specific incidents when you started at Graham Creighton?) The first day when the teacher was setting up her roster and was calling the names and when they get to my name, I remember the teacher saying, ‘I’m not sure you’re supposed to be in this class.’ There was a clear message to me that a mistake had been made.
(Do you think they meant that sincerely or they were just doing it to put you down?) My analysis was that there were no other Black students in this class and, ‘We don’t think you’re supposed to be here. We don’t think you were meant to be here.’ Those were the days of streaming, so the very bright kids were in 8A and then it went down from there. Whether it was intentional or not, the message to me was very clear that I did not belong in 8A. It is quite likely that a student from East Preston had never been placed in 8A before.
(So there was a reason you were in that class. It wasn’t just the pick of the draw?) No, they were academically streamed. So, let’s say the kids who had a 90-plus average were in 8A. (So you had really good marks?) Yes. All through school I had good marks.
(Even when you started at the new school, you maintained that?) Yes, I did. I just recently did an interview about mental health and I was asked about an example of mental health struggles. I talked about this. I talked about that depression that I experienced in that school and the question I was asked at that time was, ‘How did you cope?’ And one of the ways that I coped was to work really hard to maintain that academic standing. I worked extremely hard and I continued to be academically pretty strong because I wanted to prove everyone wrong. When people were suggesting I shouldn’t be there, I wanted to prove that I should be there.
And as busy as my mother was—and I don’t even know how she managed to do this—but I remember she went to a parent-teacher meeting at that school when I was in 8A. She would have been dealing with working full-time, having all these kids to look after. But she found a way to get to the parent-teacher meeting at Graham Creighton. When she went to talk to teachers about me, they basically said, ‘Oh, you have nothing to worry about with Wanda. She’s doing well. We wish every student was like her.’ I was dying inside. I was so depressed.
(But you were functioning?) I was functioning well. I was academically doing very, very well. Behaviourally, I wasn’t getting into any trouble. I was the model student. But I was dying a little bit inside every single day. Every day. And no one noticed. I didn’t have the language to talk about that. I didn’t tell anyone about it. I’m only now talking about the depression that I experienced at that time.
(Was the depression mostly connected to your father’s death? Or would you maybe be genetically given to depression?) I don’t think so. I mean, there would have been a lot of trauma around my father’s death. (And at that age.) At that age and then for me to have had that altercation with him that morning. And to have the thought, ‘I wish you were dead,’ and then you were killed that very day. So some blame—blaming myself—but also being from a large family, so much going on. It was very difficult for me to find my own voice.
I remember always not having enough of anything. It was hard. And as the person who was cooking most of the meals, I knew sometimes there wasn’t enough food for all of us. So I always ate last. We hear this with single parents who are struggling. I remember being that person who took smaller amounts so that other kids could have more. This is what I would call ‘the taste of poverty.’
(Your performance in school, were there other children in the family that did as well?) At that time, my sister Valerie—who was two years older than me—she was my role model. I had to work for my grades. She could get good grades without even working for them, really, or at least that’s how it seemed to me. I’m sure she would tell the story differently.
(Where did that come from with you and your sister Valerie?) Our mother was very smart. (Your mother’s not living anymore?) No. You know, what’s interesting is I’ve talked about Mum and Dad—they’re both gone—but also my sister Valerie and my brother Ervin. They both died young. Ervin died at 50 and Valerie went into a coma at 50 and was in a coma for 11 months and died at 51. So it was like she had two deaths. Her death was in stages.
(And was your mother still living when they died?) Yes. That was the hardest thing to both witness and try to support her through. Parents never expect to lose their kids. And my godsister that lived with us—her name was Velma—she died before Mum died too. So it was like seeing her lose three children. It was very difficult.
(Can you talk a little bit about your mother?) Mum grew up here in East Preston. She was the first child born to their marriage, although she was born before they got married. And she had an older sister. Her mother had a child before she got married. They had different fathers. And then she had a younger brother. And that’s it. It was just the three of them. My mother … her sister was raised by her grandparents. That family history repeated itself because her parents raised her firstborn.
My mother had a lot of ambition. I mentioned that she was very close to her aunt who lived in Halifax. She spent a fair amount of time with her, so I think she had a lot of exposure and she had ambition. She wanted to be a teacher but the school in East Preston only went to Grade 8 in those days. And once you finished Grade 8, if you wanted to go on, you had to pay to go to the City of Dartmouth. And she wanted to go on, but her father refused to pay. Her father owned this farm. He was one of the biggest farmers here in his day.
(He probably had the means?) He had the means and he refused because of her gender. ‘You don’t educate girls. Why would you? They’re only good for having babies and doing your household chores.’ So I believe that that’s where a lot of her anger and resentment towards him started. She really wanted to have opportunities in life and her father held her back. I am so proud of my Mum, though, because she went back and got her high school education in night school. As a widow, with a lot of kids, Mum went back to school. Some of my younger nieces and nephews and maybe even some of my younger siblings didn’t know about that until I did a tribute to Mum at her funeral. How sad is that—that they didn’t know that? It was something I knew. I remember Mum going to night school and getting her high school diploma.
(Would she have been in her 50s or 60s?) Probably late 50s, early 60s, yes.
(Would you have encouraged her to do that or was that on her own?) I think that would have been on her own. She always wanted more. You know, I didn’t need more encouragement than that. When I think about how hard she had to work just to get her Grade 12, the opportunities that I’ve had for education, I’d better not squander them, right? And I almost did. I mean, that’s another whole story. (Laughter).
But, yes, Mum went back to school to get her high school. That was a big deal to her, because segregated schools stopped it from being possible and her father stopped it from being possible. Her father basically said it wasn’t necessary. I’m sure on some level she wanted to prove him wrong.
She was hardworking. She taught us a lot of values. She taught us the value of hard work, she taught us the value of giving back. One of the other things I remember about Mum is that when electric irons became available, she saved her money, not to buy herself an electric iron but to buy one for her mother. And I can’t even imagine how long she had to work. She worked as a domestic because that’s the only work she could find. (They would have been using the irons that you put on the stove?) Mmm hmm. And she used to go out every Wednesday to help her with washing and the ironing.
When I think about that, I get energized just imagining the challenges that they had to overcome, but how much value that Mum placed on helping her mother. (Do young people know enough about these stories?) I don’t think so. These stories are not told. These stories are invisible.
(But like you say, it’s an inspiration.) Yes, so we need to tell those stories. We had a project out here in this community with young people where we were uncovering some of those stories. My pastor and I took a group of young people to Ottawa last year to visit Parliament Hill. And as a part of that, we created this project where they were telling the stories of some of the elders in their families and community. I said to the young people, ‘Go and talk to the people in your family. Or for someone who’s dead, talk to someone who knew them.’ They created these amazing, amazing stories.
(Dr. Bernard points to a shelf with photos on it.) That’s a picture of my Mum there in the third shelf down. That’s my sister Valerie at the top there. And in the middle is my niece Marguerite, who was born, I think, two months after Mum died. She has Mum’s name and she was one of the young women that came with us to Ottawa. She did research on her namesake—her grandmother whom she never met—and she presented that story in Ottawa. It was amazing. I remember some of the other young women, as they were in Ottawa, they were presenting before MPs and senators. And some of them were saying, ‘Oh my God, we have this incredible opportunity to be here.’ Some of them did (stories on) grandparents and aunts. And they were saying, ‘They will never be here, but we’ve brought them with us.’ It was so amazing. It was just so, so amazing and a definite highlight of my first year as a senator.
(She was a pretty lady.) Yes, she was. And she loved to dress up. (Laughter). She loved a good party. But she was also very active in the church and she worked hard all of her life. She was also very loyal. She was very similar to her mother in a lot of ways. But my grandmother, I don’t think I had ever seen her angry. She always seemed to be just level. My mother would go up and down, up and down. I told you she’d tell me one minute, ‘You remind me of your grandmother,’ and then, ‘I never liked her.’ So I was like, ‘OK, Mum.’ I was always trying to help my mother get more to a calmer state. I know part of that being up and down was related to all the burdens she had and all the trauma she lived through. I probably understood my mother more than anyone else in the family did. The value of being a social worker, I guess.
(How old would you have been when you did join the church?) I was in my 30s. (So you would have been baptized at that time?) Yes, but not out here in East Preston. At the time, I was living in Dartmouth, so I was baptized at Victoria Road Church. But I can remember the moment that I basically became a believer. I was working for the Family Services Association and I worked all over Halifax County. And it was during the time before cellphones. I don’t know how I did that job to drive all over the county. We lived in Cole Harbour and a regular routine was for me to drive to Sheet Harbour, Middle Musquodoboit, Musquodoboit Harbour. Sometimes I did them all in one day. Incredible. I wouldn’t do that today. But in those days I did.
I remember it was a day in April. It was after Easter. It was a beautiful day like today. I was in Sheet Harbour during the day and then I was going to be in Middle Musquodoboit in the evening. So I decided to cut across country. It was spring. I was in sandals and a spring outfit. No coat. And a snowstorm happened—I was cutting across country—and no phone. The only thing I could do was pray. And that’s when I really believed. That’s when I surrendered and accepted that I had no control over what was going to happen. I surrendered and I just prayed that I would get to Middle Musquodoboit.
My plan was to leave my car there because my husband was teaching a photography course in Middle Musquodoboit that evening and I was doing a parenting course that same evening. I knew he was coming to Middle Musquodoboit. So I thought, ‘OK, when I get there, I will leave my car and drive home with him.’ I just prayed, ‘God, just get me to Middle Musquodoboit.’ I get to Middle Musquodoboit and find out that they had cancelled the classes because of the storm and he had the message. So he was home. (Laughter). So I had to drive all the way home. And I was so grateful when I arrived home, so thankful that nothing happened, you know. And the next morning, I was driving my daughter to school, and a car pulled up alongside me and (someone) said, ‘Hey lady, you’ve got a flat tire.’
(You could’ve had that …) In the middle of (nowhere). No winter clothing. No winter tires—they were already off. No phone. So I already had this sense of, ‘God has taken care of me,’ and then the next day when I had that flat tire, I knew that I was ready to surrender my life. That was the middle of the week. And that Sunday, I went to church and made my decision to join Victoria Road Church, and I was baptized at that church. My daughter was about eight years old at the time.
(Would you have been flirting with the idea before that?) No, I always believed that I lived life as a person who cared about other people, who did good in the world, and I thought that was enough. So rebellion at that early stage in life and then the later stage in life focusing on just living well. And then realizing, ‘I want to be a Christian. I want to be an active Christian.’ And to do that, it means public profession of faith.
(And you’ve maintained that ever since?) Yes, not to say I haven’t been tested. (Laughter). Because I certainly have been. But I’ve maintained that ever since and I’m now an elder in this church here in East Preston.
(Fellow academics, do you ever get a sense that they would be critical of somebody being religious?) Oh, absolutely. There’s a lot of criticism of religion in the academic world, especially in the social work world that I’ve been in. However, what’s interesting is there’s been a whole development of spirituality in social work. There’s a whole body of work now on spirituality in social work. So for as much as it would have been difficult to come out as a Christian 20 years ago, now I would say people are very open as Christians.
I would say the one thing that I see as a bit of a struggle between social work values and Christianity (is) the way that Christianity—and other religions as well—treat the gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender community. The absolute discrimination that can happen in the church. I, for years, just tried to avoid it, and then decided, ‘I can’t afford to avoid it. As a leader, I need to take some leadership on this.’ So started having those conversations in the church, in religious bodies, and kind of raise those kinds of questions. I’m still not totally happy with the way those issues get taken up. Or not so in many religious bodies. But I must say, that in this church—East Preston United Baptist Church—we’ve had some good opportunities to have good dialogue. One of the things that I’ve been most impressed with is the openness of the pastor that we have. For example, we do something on HIV/Aids Awareness Day. We’ve had special services and programs and so on. That’s going to be a topic at our upcoming health fair. So I have this hope that it will get better.
(You’re working actively …) Making an active choice to do that work from inside the church as opposed to outside. Very easy to criticize from outside. We know that that discrimination is there, so I am trying to work against that as much as possible.
(You were at a meeting at the church today?) Yes. (And I guess if you’re home on Sundays, you’d be there?) Yes. (What’s the feeling that you have going into that building? Do you have a specific feeling about the building itself?) Not so much. For me, it’s not so much about the building. It’s really about the people, it’s about the work that we’re doing, it’s about the spiritual foundation. It’s about trying to truly, truly integrate. I feel that I’m at a stage in life now where I can really integrate all of who I am and what I do. So I feel quite free talking about the church in the Senate and I also feel very free talking about the Senate in the church. The work that we do in the church, I talk about it in the Senate. The work that we’re doing in the Senate, I’m able to talk about that in the church. So I really feel there’s been this integration which feels really good, because for a number of years my church stuff was here and my work as an academic was here. It was difficult to really integrate. But that’s different now. So I feel like a whole person. (Laughter).
(You mentioned your grandfather was active with the Conservatives. You would have been … is ‘appointed’ the right word?) Appointed, yes. (By Trudeau?) Yes. (Would you be considered a Liberal?) I’m an Independent. I applied. I mean, that’s a whole story in itself.
I decided to apply to become a senator when Prime Minister Trudeau announced there would be a different process. When he was elected in 2015, very early in his mandate he talked about a different process for appointing senators. No longer would senators be appointed by the prime minister. He set up an independent panel that would adjudicate for each opening in each province. There’s a core group of three people and then two people from each province that would go in to review files for those provincial vacancies.
At the time that I applied, they were two vacancies in Nova Scotia and 2,700 people applied. (Laughter). Just the other day, I was at the Viola Desmond Public School in Ajax, Ontario. I thought I was just going there to visit. The principal arranged for me to meet with young people. And one of the kids asked me, ‘Why did you apply?’ And I said, ‘Well, I’m going to be really honest with you. I didn’t believe the prime minister’s process was really going to work. So I decided I would apply to test it.’ (Laughter).
So the prime minister was saying, ‘This is going to be a process where we judge people on their merit.’ And I remember saying, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah.’ But my husband George, he kept listening—he’s a CBC junkie, I am too really—and I’d come home from work and he’d say, ‘Wanda, they’re talking about who they’re looking for and how the process is going to work and I think you’ve got a real shot at it.’ (Was this after you applied?) Mmm. I was, ‘Yeah, well, I’m not holding my breath.’
(How did you find out?) The call came from the prime minister. And it was literally on the 11th anniversary of the day that we buried our Mum—October 26th. (So you would have thought of her?) She was the first person I thought of when I answered the phone call, ‘Hello, Wanda, this is Justin Trudeau calling.’ George and I were just finishing dinner—he’s at the table. And I’m on the phone, right? He hasn’t heard what I’ve heard, so I want him to know who’s on the phone. So I’m saying, ‘Prime Minister Trudeau?’ (Laughter).
And he said, ‘I’ve read about your body of work. I’m impressed with what you’ve done and you’re the kind of person we want in the Senate. Are you willing to serve?’ I wish I’d recorded the phone conversation. But I said, ‘Yes, I am ready to serve.’ So even though I had applied to test this new process, at the moment that I got the phone call, I was absolutely ready to serve. And the reason why I was testing the process was because I’ve had so many experiences over the years that I’ve either directly experienced or witnessed where people who are very well-qualified for positions get passed over. It’s happened to me many times and I’ve seen it happen to so many other people. (People of colour?) Yes, yes. Far too often. So what was going to make me think this was going to be any different?
(Were you political at all yourself?) I’ve always been political in terms of focusing on issues and getting people to be engaged politically, even getting people to vote, encouraging other people to run for office and helping them develop what they need to do to be able to run for office. But I’ve never been politically involved in a party. (Right, not partisan.) Non-partisan, but active behind the scenes. Someone asked me why didn’t I ever run. And I’d say, ‘Well, I was afraid I’d win!’ (Laughter).
(But you’re essentially a politician now, right?) Yes. But this came at a time in my life where it was the right time for me to be able to do this. To travel back and forth to Ottawa, if I was parenting a young child or young children, it would be very difficult. Some of my colleagues—not many—but there are some who do that. And I really feel for them. It’s challenging. We work long hours. And the more engaged you are—the more involved you are in things—the busier you will be. I put everything out there on social media. It’s a way of informing people. In the old days, people did newsletters that they sent out. Now we do Twitter and Facebook. It’s immediate and no matter where I am, people are talking about the things that they’ve seen. So it works. I know it works. But it doesn’t reach everyone. I realize that. So we have to find a way to reach other people. But when I think about what I do now, it would be very difficult to do that with a young family.
(With the whole Duffy affair, was there any reluctance, were you thinking about that?) Oh, for sure, yes. You know, one of the things the prime minister said was, ‘We need people like you to help restore the country’s faith in the Senate.’ So I see that as an incredible responsibility.
(Are you getting that sense that people are coming around on the community level?) I think maybe some, yes. Quite honestly, I think most people in this community were so disengaged that they really didn’t even have a strong sense of the role of the Senate. Some people that you meet don’t know the difference between an MP and MLA. There’s not a lot of good public awareness about all the different levels of government and what they do.
One of the things that I try to do is get into schools and talk with young people, because I think it’s really important for them to understand. If they get this at a young age, they’re more likely to be good, civic-minded young adults. When people are engaged and connected in their communities, they’re more likely to move forward in positive directions in their lives. When people feel disengaged and disenfranchised, it’s really easy to get yourself involved in all sorts of things that bring trouble or ill-repute as opposed to bringing positive attention to things.
(There’s a term, was it ‘positive disruption?’) Yes, I’ve done two talks on that. (Can you talk about what that means?) It’s not a term that I coined. The dean of the Faculty of Social Work at the University of Calgary invited me out there to do a talk on the series he created called Positive Disruption. What he was trying to do in that series was to get people to talk about positive strategies that they used to disrupt the status quo.
So he invited me to come and do a public talk. I love the topic because it’s really been what I’ve been doing my entire social work career—positive disruption. So challenging the status quo, disrupting that mainstream kind of thinking, to get people thinking about who’s left out of this picture. What do we need to do to bring them in? In looking at policy and policy development, who’s at the table writing the policies and who’s most likely to be affected by the policies and how do you get those most affected by the policies more engaged? How do you create that space for them to be more engaged in policy development?
(Is there a specific example in your work now with the Senate where you employ positive disruption?) I bring that social justice lens to everything, no matter what I’m working on, whether it’s reviewing legislation, studying a topic at committee level. And my whole team does that. Everything that we look at, we look at from that kind of lens.
I’ll give you an example. In June, we passed Bill C-45, the cannabis bill. I noticed early on that in all of the debates about the cannabis bill, nobody was talking about race. People talked about impacting Indigenous communities and that was the end of any discussion about diversity or equity issues. I’m thinking, ‘I know there’s a huge impact in terms of the experience of African Canadians as an example.’ I was thinking initially about the number of African Canadians that are serving long sentences for simple possession.
People talk about youth, but they didn’t break it down to talk about how some youth were disproportionately impacted. I actually had a police officer say to me, ‘You know, if I run across a kid in some neighbourhoods with a joint, I’d send them home.’ You run across a kid in a Black neighbourhood with a joint, he’s being arrested. He’s not being sent home. Therefore, my work is bringing that lens to the work. That’s an example of how I do that in the Senate. But I do that with everything.
Bill C-16, the transgender rights bill. You look at all of those debates on that bill, no one talked about how people of African descent—who also happen to be transgender—how their lives are differentially impacted. That’s the lens that I bring. That’s the work that I try to bring. I talk about African descent, but then I really broaden it to look at other marginalized groups as well.
I have a grandson who has autism. And when I joined the Senate, one of the first speeches I heard that really spoke to me was Senator Jim Munson talking about disability issues. He was leading this major work around autism. I went to speak to him the minute we had a break and I said, ‘I’m really interested in this topic.’ So he’s pulled me into it and I love to be a part of it. But when we were preparing for the first year that I was there for (the) Autism on the Hill event, they had this banner. They said, ‘Here’s a banner we have for Autism on the Hill.’ And I looked. I’d say there were 200 faces and they were all white. I said, ‘Well, aren’t there some non-white kids that may have autism? Maybe some non-white adults with autism?’ The people around me were saying, ‘Oh my God, we never noticed it before, never noticed that they were all white.’ So, the face of autism was white. I think, ‘How does that impact anyone who’s not white who has autism?’
This year, they had two posters for the Autism on the Hill day and both of them had many different faces. The year before that, it was just my grandson. He was the only non-white face on the poster. I emailed my daughter and said, ‘Look, would you be willing to let Gavin’s picture be on this poster?’ I just couldn’t bear to have a poster with all white faces. They got it pretty quickly. (Laughter).
But beyond the faces on the poster, it means that people are paying more attention, being more intentional about inclusion and what inclusion really means. My niece lives just in front of me here. I was talking to her last night. She’s a cook and she cooks at a daycare centre. She said, ‘The daycare centre has just hired a social worker to do inclusion work in the daycare. And when I found out she was a social worker, I asked her where she studied, and she told me you were one of her professors.’ And she told me this young woman’s name. I said, ‘Oh yeah, I remember her.’ She’s doing inclusion work in the daycare. That’s phenomenal, first of all that that daycare is saying this is important. They’ve hired a social worker to do it. But it’s a social worker I know that will do it well because she knows, she’s been taught by me, as an example. And I say that not to be boastful but to say that those are issues that I know I’ve taught her well. And that’s the kind of education that I think we need to make sure that all of our people who are working in the public sector need to have. That kind of awareness.
(Listening to you speak, there’s a lot of passion there. You’re talking about how you just got home not too long ago and you’re leaving. You have a meeting with the church. You’re 65 years old. Where does the energy come from?) My energy truly comes from God. Seriously. I mean, I feel younger, I feel more energized. I don’t feel 65. I try to have balance. I really try to balance things out in life. I try to get good rest. Spending time with my grandchildren really keeps me young and I love it and I love them. They are amazing boys. We get so much joy from them and it’s wonderful to be able to spend this time with them. We’re creating memories with them that they’ll have for a lifetime. Just as I remember walking from where we lived to my grandmother’s house once a week, they’ll remember the time we spent together.
(Do you have an apartment?) No, I stay at a hotel. I stay at the Sheraton. They treat me like family. ‘Welcome back, welcome home,’ you know. I don’t want to have an apartment. I prefer to stay at the hotel. It means one less thing I have to worry about.
(Can we go back to when you started university, how old you were?) That’s another story. That story ties back to the story about my father’s untimely death. When my father was killed, it was big news because it was a big accident. It happened on Highway 7. It was in the media about the tragedy and how these two women suddenly became widows. They were young women with big families.
There was a person who saw that news report in the paper. A white man by the name of Don Denison, who was a captain in the Canadian Army, had just returned from Ghana, West Africa, where he’d done a two-year tour of duty. He was married with four children and they lived just down on Ross Road. So not far from the accident site. And I think he was just very moved. He was one of the people that reached out to help us. But he helped us in a very profound way. He was originally from Winnipeg and the person who was the president of Mount Saint Vincent University at the time was his old classmate from high school. He went to see her and he said, ‘I’ve got some young people that I know if they’re given an opportunity, they will make a difference in their community.’ In those days, you could go to a school and find out how kids were doing, because we didn’t have the privacy legislation. He went to Graham Creighton and said, ‘How are these kids doing?’ He selected myself and my sister Valerie.
He became aware of our families, started connecting with the communities because he wanted to make a difference. He joined the Nova Scotia Association for the Advancement of Coloured People and he knew that post-secondary education was key. By the time I was 15, I was in Grade 11, because I’d skipped a grade. That’s why I was 12 in Grade 8. My sister Valerie was in Grade 12. Our cousin Connie was in Grade 12. So although Valerie was two years older than me, she was only a year ahead of me because I’d skipped a grade. And he went to the Mount and said, ‘These kids need an opportunity.’ I remember him coming to our house and convincing my mother that Valerie and I should go to university together. I was 15 years old.
(You would have started when you were 15?) They took me out of Grade 11 and Valerie from Grade 12. And we stayed in residence. They invited us to come to the Mount a month early, so we were on campus a month early to sort of do a transition to become acclimatized to university life. I was not ready emotionally.
(Not surprising, you were only 15.) I was 15 years old and I loved the freedom, so I spent more time socializing than I did studying. And I flunked out. It was devastating.
(When you say flunked out, at what point would this have been?) The end of that academic year. So in April, when everyone else was getting summer jobs and preparing to go back in September, I was not allowed back. And I was devastated. It wasn’t just from my mother and my sister, but it was the whole community. We were the first people from this community to go to university and I flunked out. It was really hard to emotionally recover from that. And by this time, I was 16. I’d had a birthday. So I was 16, a university dropout and nobody would give me a job. And I was little. I was tiny and short, and nobody took me seriously. Nobody would give me a job and I did not want to be burden on my mother. And (the) university wouldn’t let me back in.
So anyway, I was home one morning listening to the radio. There was an open talk show where you could ‘call in with what’s on your mind.’ We were so poor we didn’t have a telephone. I went across the street and used my grandfather’s phone. In addition to going over there for food, we also went over there to use the phone. I went over to use Granddad’s phone and I phoned the talk show and I told them, ‘I’m not allowed to go back to university. I need a job. Nobody will give me a job. I’m 16 but I’m willing to work and I’ll work hard.’
Somebody from Beaver Foods—a supervisor or manager—at Dalhousie University called the talk show and gave me a job. I got a job working in the cafeteria at the Dalhousie Medical School waiting on medical students, making—I’ll never forget—western sandwiches, hamburgers, and fried eggs and sausages … that I didn’t burn. I did that for a year and I thought, ‘Oh my God, I can’t do this for the rest of my life.’ I was waiting on university students and I was listening to their conversations and I’m thinking, ‘I think I’m as bright as them.’
I went back to the Mount to see the president and I begged them to let me back in and they said yes. I worked for two years at Dalhousie and then I went back to the Mount on academic probation. I was so worried about failing that I cut social time out of my agenda. I didn’t socialize for a whole year, because I didn’t think I could do both. I didn’t think I could be social and be a student. It was all or nothing.
Anyway, I transitioned back and the rest, as they say, is history. I did my bachelor’s degree and then I went on to do my master’s in social work and I went to work for about 20 years. And then an opportunity came up to return to Dalhousie, but this time not as a short-order cook, but as a professor. So I went back to Dalhousie, School of Social Work. I was hired in a tenure track position. Signed a contract saying that I would complete coursework towards my PhD in the first seven years of my contract. And I completed my PhD at year six of my appointment. I worked at Dalhousie for 27 years, six months and about three hours. And I’m now a professor emeritus.
(What does tenure track mean?) Tenure track means that unless you do something pretty outrageous, it’s a job for life. It used to be until mandatory retirement, but now there’s no mandatory retirement because it is no longer legal. So now if you’re in a tenured position, you are there for life unless you do something that would cause the university to let you go.
(When you started again at the Mount after two years working at Dal, how old would you have been?) I would have been 18. (And your sister Valerie and cousin Connie, would they still have been there?) Yes. I think by the time I went back, it was Connie’s last year for her first degree. Valerie was doing nursing and it was a five-year degree at the time. So she was still there. You know, they both went on with their lives and they did well. And they didn’t have the disruption that I had. But I’m the only one that did a PhD.
PhD’s in social work from the University of Sheffield in England. That’s another story. How did you go there, right? (Laughter). How did you end up going there? Should we talk about that?
(Sure, yeah.) As I was saying, I was hired in this tenure track position with this contract saying that I had to complete the coursework. It wasn’t until years later that I analyzed that contract. I’m saying, ‘Why were they saying complete the coursework and not complete the PhD?’ Was there an expectation that I may not complete the PhD? I don’t know. Anyway, I’ll leave that alone. Leave that to the imagination of anyone who’s reading this.
To get the PhD was rather difficult because there were no PhD programs in social work in Nova Scotia. I was in a family situation where it was really difficult to even think about leaving.
I applied to three different programs that rejected me. One was Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. Their rejection letter was like, ‘We’re sorry, we can’t take you. We don’t have anyone here to supervise your research interest.’ I was interested in doing research with Black men. Cleveland, Ohio! You don’t have anyone at this university that could supervise me? As it turned out, they gave me a gift.
Anyway, I’m home, July 19th, 1991. I get a phone call from my boss, the director of the school, saying, ‘Lena Dominelli’s in town and I’m having lunch tomorrow. Would you like to come and have lunch?’ I said, ‘I don’t have time to have lunch.’ My sister was getting married to a Bermudian. There were people coming in from Bermuda, from England, everywhere across the country, and I was doing airport runs. And it was just after what the media called a race riot. Three hundred Black men walked the streets because of racism they were experiencing in the bars downtown in Halifax. And the premier had invited me to a meeting to discuss ‘the problem with Black men.’ I thought this was really important to be able to go to this meeting because of my interest in addressing issues pertaining to Black men. So I’d said to my boss—her name was Joan—I said no, I wouldn’t be able to come because I was too busy.
I woke up in the middle of the night thinking, ‘Lena Dominelli is someone whose work I’ve loved my whole social work career. Why would I not go to lunch to meet her in person?’ So I went to the meeting with the premier and left early and I went to lunch with Lena and left early to get to the airport. At lunch, Lena Dominelli—who’s an Italian-Canadian who was teaching at the University of Sheffield in England—was telling me about her program. And she gave me the name of the people who ran the PhD program and I put (the piece of paper) in my pocket of my blazer. Didn’t think any more of it. About three months later, I was putting that blazer on and I found this piece of paper. So I applied. I thought, ‘Well, I was meant to find this. I should check it out.’ I applied to the University of Sheffield joint-location PhD program. And several months later, I got a reply saying, ‘Congratulations, you are our first joint-location PhD student.’
(What does that mean, joint location?) It meant that you could do some of your work in your home location and some at the University of Sheffield. So my first year of my program I did at Dalhousie and then I went to England to the University of Sheffield. I didn’t know I was their first joint-location student. It was something new they were starting and I was the guinea pig for it.
(Where is Sheffield?) Sheffield’s in the north of England. Not too far north though. It’s actually the fourth-largest city in the U.K.
It took me four years. I did the first year in Halifax, did some research courses and so on, really being acclimatized to going back to do post-graduate studies. And then I was expected to do a one-year residency. I ended up spending two years there because it was just easier to stay there and work. And then I came home and I finished up.
(And you were married at that time?) With a 16-year-old. (So the whole family would go over?) Yes, we took our daughter with us. She would’ve been finishing Grade 11, going into Grade 12. But in the U.K., she would have been in the middle of A Levels. We decided we could not disrupt her life and put her in A Levels, so we had her do her Grade 12 by correspondence. So she was home-schooled for Grade 12. And she says it was her best year academically.
(And you were her teacher?) Yes, I was. George had two children before we married and they both live in Dartmouth. They were raised by their mother, really, and so they weren’t with us, although his daughter came to visit. His son was afraid to fly so he didn’t. But the daughter we have together, she came. As I said, she was 16. She was happy to be out of Nova Scotia. She experienced a lot of racism. And her Grade 12 year really was her best year because she could just focus on her studies. And she did very, very well. By the time she was 22, she was walking across the stage with her third degree, her second master’s. She’s the one with the two boys. (What’s her name?) Candace. (And the boys’ names?) Damon and Gavin.
(When you were at the Mount, how did you fund your education?) When we first went to the Mount, Mr. Denison had arranged for the Mount to give us bursaries. And because I flunked out, I lost mine. So then it was student loans. But I was able to get a scholarship for my master’s degree. I got a scholarship from the Province of Nova Scotia. And I was able to get a scholarship and a fellowship for my PhD. (But you still had student loans you had to pay back?) Absolutely. That’s like another mortgage. There was no family money, that’s for sure.
(And your sister, she became a nurse?) Yes. (Did she stay in this area?) No, she went to the States. She married an American, moved to Illinois and actually worked as a nurse there for a while. She also studied health education. She has a degree from Dal in health education and she opened her own home health-care agency. Valerie operated her business in two states—in Illinois and Indiana. But her death was very, very untimely. She had hypertension and diabetes, and, you know, my sister was just amazing with looking after everybody else. (Even in her work?) Her work, her family, all of us. But you know, not enough care of herself.
(Is that a lesson that you take to heart?) Absolutely. There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think about her because I have the same conditions. You know, I was pretty hypervigilant about making sure I had blood work done every year. I had an annual checkup. And in one particular year, when I had the annual blood work done and when the blood work results came in, my doctor’s office couldn’t find my chart.
So my health was spinning out of control. I started just having these periods of extreme, extreme fatigue. I was so tired I wouldn’t be able to drive to my home in Cole Harbour from Dalhousie. So I thought, ‘I need to go to the doctor.’ I was maybe a month past my annual checkup. So I go in and tell the doctor the symptoms I’m having. And she says, ‘I hate to tell you this, but you have diabetes.’ And I’m thinking, ‘How do you know that from what I’ve just told you?’ And there in front of me on the desk was this note on my chart—a sticky note—saying, ‘This patient has diabetes, bring her in,’ and then a sticky note from the staff saying, ‘We can’t find her chart.’ They knew where I worked. They knew where to find me. I’m sitting there and I’m blown away. I can’t believe this has happened. And then they sent me for all kinds of tests because my blood sugar’s been out of control now for 13 months.
Fortunately, there was no damage to any of my vital organs and I’ve been well-maintained ever since. But that was early December. And Christmas Day that same year, my sister went into the coma. But I remember talking to her on the phone just two weeks before and I was telling her about my diagnosis. And I remember her saying to me, ‘Wanda, the best thing you can do for yourself is to walk 15 minutes every day. If you do nothing else, walk for 15 minutes every day. And dry between your toes. Make sure you dry between your toes, because that’s how people end up with amputations.’ (Right, with the diabetes?) Yeah.
(Would you be on insulin?) I’m not. I was caught early enough and my diet was decent enough. I remember going to the dietitian and not having much that I could take off my list of foods. My biggest problem was not eating on time and not doing enough regular exercise. I would go for hours and not eat—forget to eat. (You were just so busy?) Mmm. I’d forget mealtimes. I’d be at work. I’d be busy. It’s six o’clock, seven o’clock, eight o’clock, ‘Oh, I should have had dinner.’ Or I’d get up and not have breakfast. All sorts of things like that, you know.
(When were you and Mr. Bernard married?) Nineteen seventy-five. (And you lived in Cole Harbour?) Yes. When we first got married, we lived in Dartmouth. And then we bought a house in Cole Harbour and we stayed there until we came here, really. We sold that house. We had made a decision to build this one.
(How was it coming back to the home community?) It’s been great. We’ve been really welcomed back here. I remember one of my old schoolmates saying, ‘Welcome home,’ and another saying, ‘Thank you for investing in the community.’ It’s like an investment back in the community.
(George) took early retirement because of health reasons. He’s a cancer survivor. You remember White Juan in Halifax (the February 2004 blizzard that struck five months after Hurricane Juan). So Hurricane Juan and then White Juan—that was all during the time that he had cancer (while the Bernards were still living in Cole Harbour). During Hurricane Juan was just when he was starting chemotherapy. He’d had his surgery and he was starting treatment and he had six months of chemo and radiation. And for six weeks of that, it was 24-hour chemotherapy. So it was a pretty difficult time.
We lost power for weeks (during Hurricane Juan) and I think we got the last hotel in Dartmouth. I remember trying to get the insurance company on the phone. Insurance companies weren’t putting people in hotels because they said a hurricane is a natural thing, right? Anyway, I decided I was going to go and talk with an agent. I have this belief if you look people in the eye … so I went and talked to them and I said, ‘Look, my husband is going through treatment for cancer. We can’t be in a house with no electricity, no phone.’ And they said, ‘Look, it’s not in the rules—it’s not in your policy—but if you can find a hotel, we’ll pay for it.’ I literally got the last hotel in Dartmouth. So we stayed at the hotel. I just kept checking back, checked with the neighbours. Once the power was on, we moved home.
And then when White Juan happened, he was still going through treatment. And again, there was so much snow, you couldn’t get out of the driveway. I phoned everyone I knew. Nobody could get to us. And the next thing I know, I’m sitting there, I look out the window and there are the neighbours—all the men in the neighbourhood—going from door to door clearing driveways. They left ours. (Dr. Bernard pauses). And our driveway was an adjoining driveway. They literally created a line and cleared the guy next to us and left us buried in snow. I don’t know if cancer has touched your life. I remember looking out and watching this happening and saying to myself, ‘I cannot be a widow here. If this is happening to us.’
And everyone knew. You know what neighbourhoods are like, right? Everyone knew that he was going through treatment. Who does that? Who treats someone like that? Who treats a neighbour like that?
(You’d think you would have been the first people to be cleared out.) I’m standing there and I’m mortified. I’m looking out the window and I’m thinking, ‘Oh my God.’ It was at that moment that I said, ‘We can’t stay here.’ So I talked to my daughter and I said, ‘What would you do if we needed care?’ She said, ‘Mum, it’s a no-brainer, I’d move you to Toronto.’ And I thought, ‘Oh my God, that’s a no-brainer, I don’t want to move to Toronto.’ (Laughter).
So we decided that we would move. And we decided to look for a house that had a basement apartment. I don’t expect my step-children to look after me. I really don’t. I’m very practical when it comes to this stuff. I do not expect or want them to look after me or to feel that they have to. And I don’t want that for my daughter either. But I said, ‘Do you know what, she could hire someone to live in to look after us.’
So we started looking and then I thought, ‘You know, we have this land.’ My mother had this land (in East Preston). My Mum was still alive and so I talked to her about the land. I said, ‘We’d like to build this retirement home and it will be a place where—George’s mother was alive then too—the two of you could come and live with us.’ And my mother said, ‘Elsie may go and live with you, but I won’t. But you’re welcome to have the land.’ (Laughter).
And so she gave us the land. So that was all sorted. The night that we met with the builder who built this house for us was the night my mother died. So she was right, she didn’t come and live with us, but George’s mother did. This room was supposed to be my mother’s room and the room next door was the room that his mother used to sleep in when she came. She didn’t live with us full-time, but she would come on weekends. But that’s why we moved here, because … I don’t know why those people treated us the way they did, but I could not bear to live there after that horrible experience.
(How long would you have been in that neighbourhood?) About 25 years. We knew the neighbours. They knew us. We’re nice people. We never caused anyone any trouble, never gave anyone any trouble. Never. The only thing that I could think of that people may have had some resentment about was the fact that when they were suffering through Hurricane Juan, we were in a hotel.
(Because your husband had cancer.) Yes. It’s not that we were living in any luxury. But that’s the only thing I could think of that we may have done that may have offended them. But for every man in the neighbourhood to do that. I mean, it was so sickening. I couldn’t bear to be in that neighbourhood again. It was hard, hard, hard to be there. And we were the only Black people on that part of the street. I could not stay there any longer. I no longer felt welcomed or safe in the neighbourhood where we had lived for so long.
There was an older woman across the street from us who was amazing. She was a widow and I loved the way people looked after her. And I was one of those people that used to look out for her and visit her and so on. They cleared her driveway. But I didn’t want to take a chance of being a widow there. Of course, George is still alive and well and we enjoy this house and we’re living a really nice life. It’s very peaceful here. So I’m grateful. The reasons we ended up coming here are not reasons that I’m happy about but I’m so grateful that it happened because I don’t know if we would have ever moved. We liked where we lived, so I don’t know if we would have ever moved. But everything happens for a reason. I’m really happy to be here and Mum was really pleased that someone was building on the land. (Kept the land in the family.) That’s right.
We landed well here. And because we were back here, we eventually joined the church out here and we enjoy it very much. And every day, I feel like I’m giving back to the community that gave so much to me.
(Do you get feedback on what it means for community members to have you as a senator?) Oh people love it. When I was appointed, there’s a sign when you first come into the community, someone—I think it was the recreation centre—put a big congratulations on there. And there’s always something positive being shared when I show up at events and things. I mean, people don’t put me on a pedestal and I wouldn’t want them to. But there’s just a deep, deep appreciation. They see the appointment not just as an appointment of Wanda Thomas Bernard, but it’s an appointment of East Preston. And I bring East Preston to life in the Senate. East Preston is in the records. I don’t say, ‘I’m a senator from Nova Scotia.’ If you look at my file, it has ‘East Preston’ there, right?
(How many years as a social worker?) Forty-three. George and I got married just before I started my master’s degree actually. So I was student, he was a student at the art college. We got married as students. I wouldn’t recommend that to people today. Don’t do what we did! So I consider myself a social worker from the moment I began social work studies and that was 43 years ago.
(I know you wear a lot of hats, but if you had one title, would that be it?) Social worker? (Yeah.) Well, I guess that’s what I’ve done the longest. And I’m still a social worker. I maintain my social work licence as a senator. So I jokingly say to people, ‘Well, I’m a social worker who just happens to be a senator.’ As a senator who’s a social worker, I bring that social work voice to the Senate as well.
(So, is it mandatory retirement at 75?) Yes. (Are you in it for the long haul?) Will I stay until I’m 75? (Yeah.) I will as long as my health is good and nothing else happens—I will stay until I’m 75. Because I don’t feel I have very much time. I was appointed two years ago when I was 63. I remember saying, ‘I only have 12 years.’ Now it’s only 10. That’s not a long time in Senate years because things move so slowly there. So yes, my plan would be to stay until I’m 75 as long as my health is good and I’m mentally competent. (Laughter).
(You have to depend on other people to gauge that?) Right. And I have some people that will tell me, ‘It’s time to go.’ They will tell me. My daughter’s one. I tell her all the time, ‘If I start to lose it, please help me make the right decision.’
I love it. I love it and I enjoy the work immensely. I have some things I want to do and I will hopefully get them done in that 10-year period. There are a number of files that I’m working on that I really hope that I see change in before I have to retire. I used to say this when I was Dalhousie, ‘I’m doing something that I really, really enjoy doing. The fact that I get paid to do it is a bit of a bonus.’ So you don’t retire from something like that—when you’re really enjoying what you do. I only retired from Dalhousie because I couldn’t do both. I had to make a choice and I chose the Senate. However, I still get an opportunity to teach a course once per year. I developed an elective called Africentric Perspectives in Social Work in 1999. It is the only course on this topic in any of the social work programs in Canada. I love teaching that course.