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.
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