July 26, 2021

Trailblazer Dr. Wanda Thomas Bernard honoured with UCalgary scholarship in her name

Her remarkable life of breaking barriers and championing equity is the inspiration for the annual award given to Black Faculty of Social Work undergrads who demonstrate extracurricular leadership in community
Dr. Wanda Thomas Bernard
Kloie Picot photo

As she reflects on her rich personal history and remarkable career, Dr. Wanda Thomas Bernard, PhD, reveals how far we’ve come – while pointing out how far we still have to go – when it comes to matters of race in Canada.

On August 1, Emancipation Day and Bernard’s birthday, the University of Calgary is honouring her with the Dr. Wanda Thomas Bernard Leadership Scholarship. The scholarship is specifically for a Black social work student who has demonstrated leadership skills in their community.

A life of firsts

Bernard has figured prominently in a series of historic firsts for Black Canadians. In 1969, at age 15, she was among one of nine Black Nova Scotians to begin post-secondary studies at a university in Nova Scotia. In 1990, she became the first Black Canadian to hold tenure and become a full professor at the Dalhousie University School of Social Work. In 2016, she became the first Black Nova Scotian woman to serve in the chamber of the Canadian Senate.

“The fact that I'm first in anything really speaks to how [Black people] were systemically excluded,” says Bernard of this relatively recent history, and how it highlights the often-unacknowledged barriers Black Canadians face in both academia and society at large. “They were excluded from education because of segregated schools, which then excluded them from the labour market. So that impacts everything: your education impacts your employment which impacts your housing, your health and your well-being. Where we should be seeing generational wealth, we're seeing the cycle of poverty over and over and over.” 

Bernard, who attended segregated schools herself between the ages of 5 and 12, managed to escape this cycle, and went on to become a founding member of the Association of Black Social Workers, the recipient of both the Order of Nova Scotia and the Order of Canada.

Success propelled by support and leadership

She gives credit for this success to the Nova Scotia's Black community, who threw their support behind that initial group of nine young students in their bid for post-secondary education five decades ago. She adds that she hopes that a similar spirit of reciprocity informs the path of students who receive the scholarship in her name.

“People helped us, and we helped and supported each other. Those are the things that led me into a career in social work – that notion of helping, but also the notion of change,” she says. “They were supporting us because they could see the future, the change that could happen, and we picked up the torch and carried it forward.

When students are being considered for this scholarship, I hope that they are seeing the leadership possibilities in themselves but also using their leadership to continue that fight for change, the fight for rights and the fight for equity.

Those are things that are just so important in our society, important in social work, and important to us as a Black community.”

The Dr. Wanda Thomas Bernard Scholarship is one of three new Faculty of Social Work awards for Black students initiated by the Faculty of Social Work’s Anti-Black Racism Task Force. Dr. Patrina Duhaney, PhD, who co-chairs the Task Force, says it was an easy decision to name the scholarship after Bernard given that the award that supports individuals who demonstrate involvement and leadership in Black communities.

“She is a trailblazer in advancing issues that concern Black individuals,” says Duhaney. “Whether it’s promoting Black excellence or highlighting the erasure of Black experiences in academia and society. So, it’s really fitting that we honour the work she’s done, not only in Nova Scotia but across Black communities in Canada.”

Bernard points out that she was rejected from three PhD programs before being finally accepted abroad. She says scholarships such as this are crucial to breakdown the economic and systemic barriers obstructing many young Black Students – barriers she faced herself.

 “We really wanted to address the systemic barriers that Black individuals face in accessing University,” adds Duhaney, “so it was really important not to provide just one scholarship, but three scholarships at both the undergraduate and graduate levels – to really support Black students through processes that tend to create barriers for them in first place.” 


If you’d like to support scholarships for Black social work students, you can find more information on the Faculty of Social Work Anti-Black Racism Task Force website.