Dr. Alika Lafontaine says he feels the increased weight of words his Mom shared with him over lunch in Regina when he was a medical resident in the summer of 2006.
She was happy that if something were to happen to her, she would have someone on the inside who could watch out for her.
“I kind of understood it when I was younger, but I think I really get it now,” Dr. Lafontaine said in a recent interview with The Globe and Mail.
Dr. Lafontaine, an anesthesiologist with Anishinaabe, Cree, Métis and Pacific Islander ancestry who was born and raised in Treaty 4 territory in southern Saskatchewan, is expected to become the new president-elect of the Canadian Medical Association (CMA). He would be the first Indigenous person to hold the role.
The CMA is a voluntary association of physicians and medical students that advocates on national health matters. As a matter of priority, Dr. Lafontaine intends to shine a light on issues such as the impact of the pandemic on the lives of physicians, and systemic racism in health.
Dr. Lafontaine said his mother’s lived experience navigating the health care system included uncertainty over whether her encounters would be hostile. If they were, she didn’t know who she could turn to for help – a real fear shared by racialized people on a day-to-day basis, Dr. Lafontaine said.
He also knows this because he’s lived it.
“I’ve experienced racism directly ... in the health care system,” he said. “Whether it was the more superficial kind of racism or the deep, directed racism where people were deliberately trying to harm me. I’ve experienced it with family members bringing them in for care. I’ve observed it as a physician. I’ve been part of situations where I’ve tried to intervene in order to address racialized experiences of patients or colleagues.”
In recent months, systemic racism in health care has become the focus of emergency discussions after the death of Joyce Echaquan, a 37-year-old mother of seven from the Atikamekw nation of Manawan. A video of Ms. Echaquan’s last moments alive in a Quebec hospital while she faced racist abuse from health care workers drew national condemnation in September, 2020.
Dr. Lafontaine said discussions about racism are now taking place openly, as opposed to silence around the issue in years past.
“We knew it was there – we knew it had impacts, but it wasn’t something that we were ready to talk about as a medical community,” he said. “I think having that opportunity and being part of this space and time, it kind of takes me all the way back to why I originally got into medicine: because of my own family.”
Dr. Lafontaine, who is based in Grand Prairie, Alta., is open about how his family supported him through personal challenges prior to his success in medicine.
In 2017, while accepting an award from the Public Policy Forum recognizing emerging Indigenous leaders, he shared that he was labelled as developmentally delayed in elementary school. After months of speech therapy, a principal told him and his parents that he’d never graduate high school.
“After the meeting, I remember my mom holding me in the car, telling me over and over again I wasn’t broken,” he said during the speech. “Obviously they didn’t accept the expectations of my principal.”
Dr. Lafontaine has received several honours for his work, including the Indspire Award, which the Indspire educational charity describes as “the highest honour the Indigenous community bestows upon its own people,” and winning CBC’s Next Great Prime Minister debate show in 2008 when he was just 25.
From 2013 to 2017, Dr. Lafontaine also co-led the Indigenous Health Alliance project that involved more than 150 First Nations and resulted in $68-million of federal funding toward transforming Indigenous health care within Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Ontario.
Pending confirmation by the CMA general council this summer, Dr. Lafontaine will become CMA president-elect in August and will assume the role of president in 2022.
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