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Evan Adams, Deputy Provincial Health Officer, is photographed outside the B.C. Centre for Disease Control in Vancouver, Friday, April 13, 2012. (Rafal Gerszak for The Globe and Mail/Rafal Gerszak for The Globe and Mail)
Evan Adams, Deputy Provincial Health Officer, is photographed outside the B.C. Centre for Disease Control in Vancouver, Friday, April 13, 2012. (Rafal Gerszak for The Globe and Mail/Rafal Gerszak for The Globe and Mail)

Health care

Native actor and doctor takes on new role championing health in B.C. Add to ...

Evan Adams was thrilled to win a Gemini at a glitzy ceremony last fall for co-hosting the national aboriginal achievement awards.

But he is much more excited to be delivering an address at the World Cancer Congress in Montreal this summer, where he will speak about multimillion-dollar initiatives in Canada and how Canadian approaches to cancer treatment, education and research could be used around the world.

“Hosting a TV show is hard work, but it’s not like curing cancer,” Dr. Adams, 45, said during a break in his frenetic schedule. “It’s not brain surgery.”

Dr. Adams, a proudly aboriginal physician, straddles many worlds. He is a public health doctor in British Columbia who speaks French, a playwright with works produced across Canada and in the United States, a stage performer who has done Shakespeare, and an award-winning actor in mainstream movies. Earlier this month, he was appointed deputy provincial health officer for British Columbia.

His appointment is a significant step in efforts to improve the health of the province’s native people, who have higher rates of infant mortality, hospitalization, diabetes and deaths related to AIDS, alcohol and drugs.

As deputy provincial medical officer, Dr. Adams will primarily have responsibility for monitoring the health of aboriginal communities. He will work with a new first-nations health authority that is taking over programs previously delivered by Health Canada and the provincial government. He will also have responsibility for issues affecting all British Columbians.

B.C.’s Provincial Health Officer, Perry Kendall, said having a native person with the stature of Dr. Adams in the new position will be a crucial component in improving aboriginal health.

“He is very accomplished individual,” Dr. Kendall said in an interview, adding that Dr. Adams has been widely recognized for his achievements.

Dr. Adams is a member of the Sliammon First Nation, which is outside Powell River on the Sunshine Coast. He said his father taught him to work hard by showing him how to survive in the wilderness. “Gathering food, sleeping between logs, having nothing but a jacket, matches and a knife is phenomenally difficult,” he said.

He was not raised with a gentle hand, he said. “If you turn the boat the wrong way, you die; if you don’t catch fish, you starve; if you do not build a shelter properly, you freeze. Those were very hard lessons,” he said.

“School was very easy after that,” Dr. Adams said. “It was completely effortless.”

He was a biochemistry undergraduate student in Montreal when he began his acting career in the 1980s. Years later, he went to medical school at the University of Calgary and earned a masters degree in public health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore.

He continued to act on stage and in films while attending university. He won an Independent Spirit Award for best debut performance in the film Smoke Signals. The Beachcombers and Da Vinci’s City Hall are among the television series in which he has appeared.

Not surprisingly, Dr. Adams takes a holistic approach to medicine. For instance, when considering alcohol-related deaths, he looks at how hospitals respond as well as how patients behave. Some people say they feel they have received poor care because they were aboriginal, he said. “My job is to say, how are you treating these people?” Dr. Adams said.

Infant mortality cannot be improved just by telling a woman how to live her life, he said. “Yelling at someone drowning in the water is lousy intervention,” he said, adding that he will advocate for programs that will help young women live better lives.

His main focus will be on ensuring collaboration with natives related to public-health issues. “Lots of public health doctors have advocated vaccination, prevention and other [measures]and they have not been heard,” he said. “But the first nations community know that I am from the same place. They know I am here to help them, to fight for them.”

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