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From welfare to cabinet, Joanne Bernard's journey into politics took many turns

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Joanne Bernard, Nova Scotia's community services minister, is seen at her constituency office in Dartmouth, N.S. on Friday, Feb. 21,2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan

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Joanne Bernard, Nova Scotia's community services minister, is seen at her constituency office in Dartmouth, N.S. on Friday, Feb. 21,2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan

HALIFAX - Joanne Bernard says Nova Scotia's welfare system doesn't have to be a poverty trap.

And she should know.

In the late 1990s, Bernard was a single mother living on income assistance following a traumatic marriage breakup.

Today, as the province's community services minister, she's in charge of the entire social assistance system.

Bernard says her transformation from food bank client to minister of the Crown should serve as an example to those who think welfare is a dead end.

"When I see generations on income assistance ... I want to stop that," she says, recalling the nine years she spent on welfare. "It's not a way of life. It's not a career path. It's all learned helplessness. ... When you grow up with that, you don't see other options. I want to be the minister who is able to show people options."

Bernard grew up in Halifax, the only child in a stable, middle-class home.

After she graduated from high school she worked at restaurants and hotels, having decided university wasn't for her.

At 23, she met a sailor from the Netherlands at a downtown bar, starting a romance that culminated in marriage a few years later.

"Within seven months, the marriage broke down," Bernard recalls. She ended the relationship the day after she learned she was pregnant.

Bernard moved in with her parents, applied for income assistance and decided to earn a degree at Mount Saint Vincent University in Halifax.

"I never looked back," she says. She soon moved out of her parents' house and took advantage of every support program available. "I very quickly learned that this was an investment in myself, and that's how I approached it."

But it wasn't easy.

Her parents offered help, but there were times when there wasn't much money and she turned to the local food bank to get by.

As for her son Taylor, he had to make sacrifices, too.

"I felt a lot of guilt later on in his teenage years; that I had rushed his childhood trying to get through this degree," she says. "He heard 'No' a lot when he was growing up — more than I did."

After graduating in 1996, Bernard went on to earn a master's degree in political science from Acadia University in Wolfville, N.S.

"I realize that many people go on (welfare) and feel that their power has been taken away, but I was the opposite," Bernard says.

In 1999, Bernard left the welfare rolls and took a job with the provincial NDP caucus for a short time. Her career in the non-profit sector took off when she established the Marguerite Centre, a residential facility for women recovering from addictions and abuse.

In 2005, she was hired to lead Alice Housing, which offers long-term housing for women and children leaving abusive relationships.

Lori Morgan, child and youth counsellor at Alice Housing, says Bernard's first-hand experience with the welfare system helped the organization and its clients.

"She had an understanding of what these women are going through," Morgan says.

When asked to describe Bernard's personality, Morgan came up with two words: persistence and compassion.

"For anybody working in our field, you have to have a thick skin," Morgan says. "It's emotional work that we all do. You see these women. You see these kids. You hear their stories. It's hard work."

Bernard's work with Alice Housing increased her profile and reignited a long-held desire to seek public office.

Disenchanted with then-NDP leader Darrell Dexter, she ran for the Liberals and won the riding of Dartmouth North in the general election last October that saw the Liberals sweep the New Democrats from power after one term in office.

At first glance, Bernard is a plain-spoken woman with a no-nonsense character that is sometimes punctuated with profane jabs.

"I have a mouth like a sailor," she says with a laugh.

Aside from her hardscrabble background, Bernard's political profile is unique for another reason: she is the first openly gay member of the Nova Scotia legislature.

But she says she doesn't want to make that the focus of her public life.

"I didn't make a big deal of it when I was married to a man. I wasn't going to make a big deal of it when I was married to a woman," she says. "If the gay community is looking to me to come out and be groundbreaking, I'll do what I can, but it's not my focus."

Bernard says her priorities as minister are ending the province's over-reliance on institutionalized care and reducing the level of paternalism and dependency in the social services system.

"I want to help people who don't see an end date (on social assistance)," she says. "As minister, I'd like to see them in, up and out. That's my goal."

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