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Jeremiah Hurley, Dean, Faculty of Social Sciences

I am very pleased to welcome Senator Wanda Thomas Bernard to McMaster University. Senator Bernard is a highly regarded social worker, educator, researcher, community activist and advocate of social change. For many years she was a professor at the Dalhousie School of Social Work; she served as Director of the School for 10 years, and played a significant role as the University’s Special Advisor on Diversity and Inclusiveness. Dr. Bernard has worked with provincial organizations to bring diversity to the political processes in Nova Scotia and to teach community members about Canada’s legislative process.  She now uses a race equity lens to address anti-black racism on a federal level.

Dr. Jerry Hurley, Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences at McMaster University

Senator Bernard is a highly regarded social worker, educator, researcher, and advocate

She is a founding member of the Association of Black Social Workers and past chair of the Nova Scotia Advisory Council on the Status of Women. She has served as an expert witness in human rights cases and has presented at many local, national and international forums.

Senator Bernard currently chairs the Standing Senate Committee on Human Rights and is Co-Vice-Chair of the Canada-Africa Parliamentary Association. She has received several honours for her work and community leadership, including the Order of Canada.

It is meaningful to all of us in the Faculty of Social Sciences, and especially to the School of Social Work community, to have Senator Bernard here at McMaster for this milestone Anniversary. Welcome, thank you for being here. I’ll now turn the microphone over to Dr. Tara La Rose.


Dr. Tara La Rose, Assistant Professor, School of Social Work

Tara La Rose, Assistant Professor, School of Social Work

I was asked to Introduce the Honourable Wanda Thomas Bernard, Senator, to provide a somewhat personal or more intimate introduction.  I know Wanda because I completed my MSW at Dalhousie.  Wanda Taught me and co-supervised me as a Graduate Assistant with the Committee on Racial and Ethnic Affairs.

The power of looking back while moving forward

I am from Hamilton (Go Cathedral Gales) and did my Undergrad in Toronto…when I was getting ready to go back to school, one of my mentors told me about how great Dal was, how it was a feminist school, a structural school, how they did things a bit differently…she mentioned all these people, I remember 2 Dorothy’s,  and a woman named Bessa and young upstart named Donna who was doing a lot of interesting work related to unions… And so on this recommendation,  I applied and I was accepted – I found the decision to go a difficult one, this was a  move away, not just down the highway a bit…I asked the universe for a sign, and one day when I was leaving work on both the left and the right of my car were cars with Nova Scotia license plates, so I accepted…

When I arrived in Halifax I remember going to the orientation day…when I got there, there were no Dorothy’s, No Bessa’s and No Donna’s…just this guy “Fred” who described himself as the “Acting Director” … who informed all of us that he was the Director, even though technically he was from Sociology, he guessed because “no one wanted the job”… and I remember thinking – What have I done!! 

Changes in the various people who were working weren’t the only changes, structural social work was being respectfully replaced by something called anti-oppressive practice and in the courses focusing on this particular model was where I met Wanda.  Wanda’s class was like no other course I have taken, it was a perpetual potluck, dialogue circle, where the Prof talked about her own life…not little slips of stories, or the occasional ‘you’ll never believe what my kid did’, or a ‘when I was doing my Phd’.  Wanda told us about her, and brought other people, community members, social workers, advocates to also speak personally about what and how and who…and the focus on race and the way in which racism and other forms of oppression intersect and interlock was the centre of thinking in her course…and at the school.   There were readings, but there was never a lecture, never a power point.  Sometimes we met on campus, sometimes in the community.  There were individual meetings with the prof – 2 of them, and not some 10 minute conversation.  We were expected to engage with dialogue partners…it was entirely different, not always comfortable and very important.

I also had the pleasure of working with Wanda as a Graduate Assistant with the Committee on Racial and Ethnic Affairs.  Here I saw Wanda at work in administration, where she demonstrated the power of silence and reserve.  Where she mentored those of us with less experience about how to think about community participation, how to think about the theoretical and political as shaping the choices that are made in the articulation of policy and procedure.  She taught me about oral history,  and about institutional memory and the power of looking back while moving forward, about the importance of knowing where you’ve been so you can know where you are going. 

It wasn’t long after that Fred’s role as Director was completed and Wanda became the director of the school.    It was a first, the First Black Woman Director of a School of Social Work in Canada…and while we need to think about why this occurred only in 2002 – Wanda’s role as Director brought with it many positive changes, in part because of Wanda’s important capacity to know how to look back and to walk forward at the same time.  This first wasn’t Wanda’s first first, and it certainly wasn’t her last first.  Fred’s statement, his humour wasn’t completely correct, it wasn’t that no one wanted the job… It was that we were waiting for Wanda.  And so I will stop here because, now, once again you are waiting for Wanda and so I would like to introduce you to The Honourable Doctor Wanda Thomas Bernard, Senator.

Keynote Presentation

The Honourable Wanda Thomas Bernard, Senator

I want to thank you for the invitation to be with you here, to speak at your 50th anniversary. The 50th anniversary of the school is a time to reflect back. I hope the talk that I’ve prepared for you will help you not just look back on the last 50 years, but also to look forward.

The Honourable Wanda Thomas Bernard, Senator

A Call to Social Workers: Lead the Change

I’ve entitled this “A call to social workers: Lead the change.” Social workers must lead the change.

I want to start by talking a bit about facilitating social change, what do we really mean by that? I want to share a bit about my actual vision. I went into the leadership of the school without really wanting the job, but having so many people tell me “we want you to do this”. I will talk a bit about how I got into this whole leadership, what did I do with it. Then I want to talk about positive disruption. I want to talk about my legacy. And then I want to end with this call to action. For every one of us. I want you to be thinking about the change you want to see and your place in leading it. Regardless of where you are, whether you’re a student, whether you’re retired, whether you’re working, whether you’re in management or frontline. We all are leaders and we all have the potential to lead change.


Judith Michel

So the starting point: thinking about social change and facilitating social change.

If we think about it as this action, individually, culturally, institutionally, systemically. Social change requires a long-term commitment to work towards some sort of common goal. You cannot have social change without social action on all of these levels. You cannot have social change without social justice. You cannot have social change without social activists leading the change. You cannot have social change without a deep, deep, commitment. You have to be committed and passionate about what it is that you’re doing. And you cannot sustain that deep commitment without a fire in your belly. For me that fire in the belly has been the thing that has pushed me to keep going, to keep moving. There is no social change without social justice.

the “Triple A paradigm”

For me it’s really about using that social justice lens and this thing called the “Triple A paradigm”. I would say one of the most important things for us to keep in mind is that no matter where we are, we have the power to lead change. But we give it up when we don’t use it, when we don’t recognize it. What is this “Triple A paradigm”? Talk about awareness, the need to be aware, what are the issues that we’re talking about? But also the analysis, what is our critical analysis of what’s happening? And that should lead us to action. We make big mistakes when we move from awareness to action and we miss that middle piece. This is a cycle we have to keep going through, the awareness, the analysis, the action. That should lead to more awareness, more analysis, more actions. I certainly try to employ those things in myself and one of my former graduate students use this in the work we were doing at Dalhousie to try to bring about systemic change around diversity and equity. 

What’s really worked for me is this combination of adaptive leadership and Afro-centric leadership and a big piece of that is not just having all voices heard but ensuring that all those voices are valued. How do we value those voices? And that’s led me to what I would consider authentic leadership, the need to really make a difference no matter what we’re doing and we’re were at, making a difference. The need to leave an imprint. What imprint do we want to leave? Create a legacy. What legacy do you want to leave? What do you want people to say about you? Think about you? When you’re no longer in their presence. And also to create systemic change. What do we need to do to ensure that we remove these barriers that create these concrete ceilings and brick walls? It’s really the systemic change.

It takes courage to be a change leader.

This work is not for the timid. It takes a lot of courage to lead change, to challenge the status quo. Yesterday the word safety came up. There is no safety. But how do you create braver spaces? We talked about how we create braver spaces for people to be able to do this work. Some of you may know Dr. Jackie Sieppert, from the Faculty of Social Work at University of Calgary. He’s created this series called positive disruption in social work. This quote from Jackie, the whole idea of making people think differently about social work and hoping that people will start to look at these important issues with a  different lens and that’s part of what I try to do every single day. And so for me, the courage to be a change leader, the courage to do positive disruption, the courage to challenge the status quo really comes from my life.

Randy Shiga

This is what I was born into.

When I think about where I get that passion for social change, I think about growing up in poverty, I think about the fact that my father was killed in an accident, drunk driving when I was 12. I think about the fact that my mother raised 13 of us. I think about the fact that she didn’t go beyond grade 8 because she couldn’t, because of segregated schools. And I think about the fact that she managed to keep us together. I am absolutely amazed but it reminds me that so many people don’t find a pathway through circumstances that they were born into. This is no fault of my own, this is what I was born into. For my parents it’s what they were born into. Not many people break through. So when I’m in that Senate I’m thinking about all of those pieces.

Jeff Black

Being Brave.

So when I think about my legacy it’s about creating braver spaces, I help create braver spaces by being brave myself. By being willing to talk about all of these things that are difficult to talk about. By inspiring change, and I hope that I inspire change by my very presence in the Senate. And challenging things through that lens of social justice and teaching other people how to do that, forming allies. Sponsoring the next generation makes me feel excited because it gives me such hope for the next generation. Instilling critical hope. So when I talked about a call to action, it’s a call to action for the next generation.

We’re in tough times, aren’t we?

If there was ever a time that we need to be leading the change we need to see in the world, it is now. Things change when we do something.

McMaster social work community, this really is your call to action and I encourage you to think about how you can continue the path you’ve already started. Think about what new paths need to be created, and think about leading the change that you want to see. Step out of the big picture, step out of the weeds and think about what are some of the things you have control over?

How can you use your voice? We need the silent majority to start speaking up. We need the silent majority to start standing up. We need that silent majority to lead the change that they want to see.

The cornhusk doll gift by Six Nations artist Elizabeth Doxtater