A Halifax professor and an Indigenous leader from Cape Breton are among Canada's nine non-partisan senators named today by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. 

Nova Scotia social worker and educator Wanda Thomas Bernard said she got the call just after supper Wednesday night. 

"I was absolutely shocked to get a call from the prime minister's office," said Bernard. 

"I know hundreds of people applied and so to have been selected amongst, I'm sure were a very qualified group of people — it's very humbling. I also feel very grateful. I'm grateful for the opportunity to serve our country."

'I wasn't even thinking about this'

Daniel Christmas, senior adviser for the Mi'kmaq First Nation of Membertou, has also been selected. He said he got his application form in just before the deadline and was surprised to get a call from the prime minister Wednesday night telling him he had been chosen.

"I wasn't even thinking about this. My whole plan was to work the rest of my career in Membertou and then retire," he said.

"I think I have a specific experience with Aboriginal communities that's unique in the country. And working here in Membertou for the last 20 years, if I can find a way to apply that knowledge to other Canadians, and Aboriginal Canadians in particular, I think I have a contribution to make."

'Rags to riches story'

Christmas is credited with playing a key role in transforming his home community from a First Nation on the brink of bankruptcy to one of the most successful in Canada. He plans to use Membertou as an example of how changes can be made.

"We're a rags to riches story. And if there's communities out there who are under the false belief that things can't change, here in Membertou did change. So hopefully I can bring that whole story and experience to other Canadians."

Christmas is also the former director of advisory services for the Union of Nova Scotia Indians. He will have to resign from his senior advisor position before he starts in the Senate.

Both Christmas and Bernard are among the first senators to be chosen under an arm's-length process that saw more than 2,700 Canadians apply to fill the 21 vacancies in the upper house.

Trudeau is poised to announce two more batches of appointments within days. When he's done, independent senators will hold a plurality of 44 seats in the Senate.

Human rights issues important to Bernard

Bernard was the first African-Canadian to hold a tenure-track position at Dalhousie University and to be promoted to full professor. She is a founding member of the Association of Black Social Workers and current chair of the Nova Scotia Advisory Council on the Status of Women.

She said she applied to be a senator to help make a difference. 

"The work that I've done around diversity and equity and inclusion issues is work that is so important and I applied to the Senate because I wanted an opportunity to contribute on that national level around those issues and many more," said Bernard. 

"And to bring that equity lens to all of the work we do in this country — that's my goal, to help other people see that, understand it, embrace it and work towards making this country an equitable country for all of us." 

'It's a step in the right direction'

She said she would like to work on a human rights committee but she's not yet sure where she will be placed.

"I would think with my background, that is one that my senator colleagues would be interested in hearing my views on," Bernard said. 

"I love the idea. The reason I applied was because there was an opportunity to be there as an independent. The non-partisanship is excellent, absolutely excellent. And I feel that it's been a really fair process."

Christmas agrees. He's excited about bringing his knowledge of how to work with Indigenous communities to the upper house.

"I think the timing is right for someone like myself to step into the Senate when that's the government's agenda. And I think I can bring some first-hand expertise and knowledge to the whole process."

Bernard said the swearing-in ceremony should take place some time in November. The first sitting will likely be toward the end of January.