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Patricia Scotland, seen in London in March, 2016, is the first woman to hold the position of Commonwealth Secretary-General.

Carl Court/Getty Images

Patricia Scotland has broken through a lot of barriers during her career as a lawyer, Attorney-General and peer in Britain. She's now using that experience in her efforts to revitalize the Commonwealth and challenge member countries to deal with issues such as gay rights.

And she's looking for more money from Canada to help.

Ms. Scotland, 60, took over as Secretary-General of the Commonwealth last month, the first woman to hold the position. Born on the Caribbean island of Dominica, Ms. Scotland came to London as a child and is a dual Dominican and British citizen. She was appointed to the House of Lords in 1997, and served as Britain's first female Attorney-General in the Labour government under Prime Minister Gordon Brown (2007-10).

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"I think this is an exciting time for the Commonwealth," Ms. Scotland said in an interview. "We have to wake people up, if you like, as to the reality of the power the Commonwealth has."

The 53-member organization, which traces its roots to the British colonial era, has become largely irrelevant in recent years, and it has struggled with human-rights issues among its members. LGBT groups have been particularly critical, noting that homosexuality is a crime in 43 of its countries.

"In the Commonwealth, over 2.118 billion people live with laws that criminalize sexual orientation and gender identity," said a recent report from the Commonwealth Equality Network. "That figure makes up over 90.36 per cent of the total population of the Commonwealth."

Ms. Scotland said she is committed to pursuing LGBT rights among Commonwealth countries, but change won't come quickly. She pointed to countries such as Seychelles, which is reviewing its human-rights legislation, and South Africa, which has a constitution that protects gay rights and could be a model for other African countries.

"Just as apartheid was not acceptable to the Commonwealth in the past, and we no longer think that marriage between a black and a white person is unlawful, that was a journey. We're on a journey on these other issues, too," she said. "I think it will take time, but am I confident that we'll get there? Yes I am, if we do it in a way that is respectful and acknowledges differences from where we start but keeps our focus on where we are all going to end up – and hopefully together."

She added that her background is helpful in projecting a new image for the organization. Ms. Scotland, who grew up in a working-class London neighbourhood, had a long career as a lawyer and was the first black woman to be named a Queen's Counsel in 1991.

"I cannot be a representation of the old Commonwealth ideal," she said. "You just have to look at me. I'm black, I'm female, I'm coming from a very small island. I have never taken 'no' for an answer."

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And she said the Commonwealth is already exerting its influence globally, particularly at last year's climate-change conference in Paris, where she said the Commonwealth was instrumental in shaping the final agreement. The organization is also working on health initiatives, anti-corruption programs and plans to address domestic abuse.

Canada's position in the Commonwealth weakened under Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who boycotted the 2013 summit in Sri Lanka because of human-rights abuses and cut Canada's funding to the Secretariat. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau attended last year's summit in Malta and indicated Canada will play a larger role in the organization.

"I hope that Canada will feel it's back in terms of the financial support," Ms. Scotland said. "I am hoping against hope; I've got all my fingers and toes crossed. I understand the fiscal imperatives, but I am just hoping that they may be able to find something down the back of the sofa that would be able to help us in the Commonwealth really deliver for our citizens. What I can absolutely guarantee, as someone who is the 10th child of 12, is that I know how to make a penny go a long way."

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