The chair of the Senate human rights committee says she has encountered anti-Black bigotry on Parliament Hill, aboard commercial airline flights and in “countless” other circumstances. “I am feeling emotional just telling you this,” said Senator Wanda Thomas Bernard (Independent-N.S.).
“I don’t wear a sign that says I’m a Senator, so when I am in public spaces and people don’t recognize me, I am treated with the same kind of discrimination that faces other people of African descent in this country,” said Bernard: “It’s like a thousand little cuts.”
Bernard in a Senate webcast marking African History Month with O’Neal Ishimwe, a Senate page, said: “As a person whose family has been here since the 1700s, a person of African descent, as a Black person growing up in Canada, you were made to feel every single day that you don’t really belong.”
In a subsequent interview, Bernard cited specific instances of “racist micro-aggression” she has encountered as a legislator. “Racism is actually a form of violence,” said Bernard. “Every time you experience that, it’s a micro-violent act.”
Bernard said in 2018 she attempted to board a Parliament Hill bus to attend Senate business. “It was a very cold, blustery day and I was bundled up,” she said. “I was taking a shuttle bus to Parliament’s Centre Block. As people ahead of me got on the bus, I stepped on and was immediately asked for ID. I was the only person of African descent on the bus, and the only one who was asked for ID. I had to unbutton my coat to find my Senate pin. Nobody else who got on that bus was asked for ID.”
“Bystanders didn’t say anything,” said Bernard. “I had other passengers address me: ‘Excuse me, Senator’, ‘Are you going to sit down, Senator?’ The driver knew.”
“We need to ensure all staff who work on Parliament Hill are respectful of all people,” said Bernard. “It’s important. This is significant. We are all Canadians.”
“Now I prefer to walk,” said Bernard. “I try to avoid encounters that may be uncomfortable.”
Bernard said she filed a formal complaint with an unidentified carrier – “I don’t want to name the airline,” she said – following a separate incident last December on a flight from Ottawa to Halifax.
“I was in an aisle seat and after all passengers had boarded, I saw that nobody was sitting in the window seat. So I moved. The flight attendant spotted this and in a very vile, accusatory tone said: ‘Why did you move? Who gave you permission to move?’ Her tone was so vile, a passenger in the next row had a shocked look on her face. The flight attendant noticed this, and proceeded to explain to the other woman, not to me, that ‘I have to check because people pay extra money for these seats, and we can’t just have anybody sitting there.’”
“I sat quietly for the rest of the flight,” said Bernard. “This was racist micro-aggression, absolutely. Later I asked the other passenger, this was a white woman, if she would act as a witness for my formal complaint, and she agreed. I filed my complaint December 19. I haven’t had a response yet. That flight attendant did not even apologize.”
“These are two examples that stand out, but of course there are other incidents,” said Bernard. “If I as a Senator have to deal with this, where are we? And what hope is there for the critical mass of people of African descent in this country?”
Bernard described the bus incident as the “last straw” that prompted her March 1 to introduce a Notice Of Inquiry to “call the attention of the Senate to anti-Black racism”. The matter is pending.
Bernard also sponsored Bill S-255 An Act Proclaiming Emancipation Day to observe each August 1st the anniversary of the passage of an 1834 U.K. Act For The Abolition Of Slavery Throughout The British Colonies. The bill is awaiting a vote on Second Reading.
“It is largely an educational tool,” said Bernard. “We need to understand the institutional harm of slavery that occurred in our country. I don’t want this just to be about individual cases of discrimination. We have not seen systemic change. We’re not seeing the progress for people of African descent that we should be seeing.”
“We used to talk about the glass ceiling for women,” said Bernard. “But for African-Canadians, there is a concrete ceiling. It is nearly impossible to break through that.”
Bernard, a former professor at Dalhousie University’s School of Social Work, was appointed to the Senate in 2016.