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While an undergraduate at the University of British Columbia, Michael Dumont was a mentor in a program for indigenous youth that featured guest speakers, including James Andrew, aboriginal student initiatives co-ordinator at UBC's Faculty of Medicine.
Mr. Andrew's talk made a lasting impression on at least one person in that group: Dr. Dumont, who at the time was studying kinesiology with an eye toward a health-care career, but wasn't sure what his next step would be.
"He [Mr. Andrew] came and gave a presentation to the youth, but I was probably the one paying the most rapt attention, just soaking up everything he had to say," says Dr. Dumont, who went on to complete medical school at UBC in 2012.
He now works as a general physician at Lu'ma Medical Centre, a First Nations health clinic in Vancouver, and with the Musqueam Primary Care Clinic with the Musqueam Indian Band, also in Vancouver.
"Med school was certainly on my radar … but I didn't know anything about the aboriginal admissions program and hadn't formulated in my head a plan for what I could do in terms of a career," Dr. Dumont adds.
In applying as an aboriginal student to UBC's Faculty of Medicine, Dr. Dumont became part of a successful effort by the university to increase the number of First Nations doctors in B.C. Launched in 2001, the Aboriginal Admissions MD Program – like similar programs at other Canadian medical schools – is designed to address the under-representation of First Nations people in the medical profession and improve health outcomes for indigenous people.
In 1996, the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples estimated that about 0.1 per cent of physicians in Canada were aboriginal and pegged the ratio of aboriginal physicians to the aboriginal population at roughly 1:33,000, compared with 1:515 for the general population. (According to Statistics Canada, aboriginal people accounted for 2.8 per cent of the country's population in the 1996 census and 4.3 per cent in 2011.)
Nearly two decades later, in its 2015 final report, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission called on all levels of government to "increase the number of aboriginal professionals working in the health-care field, to ensure the retention of aboriginal health-care providers in aboriginal communities and to provide cultural competency training for all health-care professionals."
It is difficult to pinpoint the current number of indigenous doctors practising in Canada. The Canadian Medical Association does not track members by ethnicity. A University of Ottawa researcher is working on a survey of Canadian medical schools and aboriginal graduates, but has yet to release that data.
But results at UBC and other universities show an encouraging trend.
UBC's Aboriginal Admissions program set a target of graduating 50 First Nations doctors by 2020 – a milestone it hit five years early, in 2015.
To date, 118 Aboriginal students have been admitted to the program, with 50 aboriginal students currently enrolled. Five per cent of seats in the program – 14 of 288 – are set aside for aboriginal students, who must meet the same academic requirements as all other applicants.
At the University of Saskatchewan in 2016, 10 of 89 graduates in the College of Medicine – about 11 per cent of the total – were First Nation, Métis or Inuit.
For Mr. Andrew, such numbers show targeted programs such as the one at UBC can make a difference.
The 1996 Royal Commission called for training 10,000 indigenous people in the health-care field over the next decade, but two decades later, Mr. Andrew says that target is not even half-way to being met.
His role involves recruiting students and supporting them once they're admitted, notably through a pre-admissions workshop at which incoming students mingle with those already in the program and ongoing mentoring.
"Whenever I get an aboriginal student interested in applying to the program, I'll ask them if they'd be interested in having a mentor … usually a lot of students say yes to that," Mr. Andrew says.
Students help each other academically and share tips about housing, childcare and where to buy cheap groceries.
Graduates keep in touch through a Facebook group called "James's Tribe."
"James Andrew's continued mentorship and advocacy are a driving force behind the success UBC has had in producing so many indigenous physicians," Dr. Dumont said in an e-mail. "His strong interest in our well-being has helped create a sense of connection and community about the graduates that gives us a stronger collective voice and purpose."