By Avis Favaro, Elizabeth St. Philip and Alexandra Mae Jones, Editor of CTVNews.ca
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Toronto, Ontario (CTV Network) – It’s been a long road for Dr. Alika Lafontaine, a seasoned anesthesiologist and now the first Indigenous President-elect of the Canadian Medical Association (CMA).
Whether it’s wrestling in school, playing in a band, or taking on this new responsibility at the CMA, he says he’s been supported every step of the way by his family and mentors.
“I am really excited about the next few years, about the opportunity I will have to create this space […] in the same way that the people in my family life created space for me, ”Lafontaine told CTV News.
Lafontaine, who was born in Treaty 4 territory in southern Saskatchewan, now works in a hospital in Grande Prairie, Alta.
It has not been an easy road. As a child, he says he was struck off by the teachers. He had a stutter and was tagged with developmental delay.
“When I was in elementary school, I remember my parents and I were invited to the school administrator’s office and they made us sit down,” he said. “In fact, they told my parents I would never graduate from high school.
After the meeting, Lafontaine and his parents sat in the car and his mother hugged him.
“She did this several times over the next few weeks and she kind of bent over me and whispered to me […], ‘You are not broken, you are not broken,’ ”said Lafontaine.
“I think it’s an experience that a lot of racialized families have had during this time. You know, you were tagged with some sort of problem and therefore there really was no future for you.
He said that as he looks back on his life, he can trace his determination to be successful back then.
“I can see how this was a trigger for a lot of the things that I personally want to do, show my parents that I could be there for them, I could do these things for them, I could become something more than what we were told at this meeting.
This month, at the CMA’s annual meeting, where they will discuss challenges and goals for the future, they will ratify Lafontaine’s appointment, after which he will officially become CMA President-elect.
His presidency will begin in August 2022.
Lafontaine’s appointment was announced earlier this year in a CMA press release, which noted that in addition to being one of the first Indigenous candidates, Lafontaine was the CMA’s first presidential candidate. of Pacific island origin.
The association underlined in the announcement that one of Lafontaine’s accomplishments was to co-lead the Indigenous Health Alliance from 2013 to 2017, a “health transformation project” involving 150 First Nations and several organizations. national health.
THE FAMILY HAS ITS STATES A key part of his success has been the unconditional support of his parents, he says, who shaped his life.
His mother Manusiu, an immigrant from the Pacific Islands, and his father Christopher, a college instructor of Cree and Anishinaabe descent, were determined that their son exceeded the low expectations his elementary teachers had for him.
His father told CTV News they know their son is brilliant.
“There was something inside, we just knew there was something we had to bring out, to reach that potential,” he said.
“This is what we have done during this period, is to assure our Alika that he will be fine, that we as parents will find a solution to the problem,” her mother said.
Both parents had been victims of racism and discrimination and were determined that Lafontaine and her four siblings go to fields that would allow them to give back to their family and their community, with her mother even choosing her job – “doctor – when he was still a child.
“We have a dentist, we have a lawyer, we have a person who works in the hospital, and [our] his daughter is a chemist, ”said Manusiu proudly.
Lafontaine said it was partly the “classic” wanting a doctor in the family “”, but that he believes it was also about having someone you trust who would be able to provide advice. medical advice.
“As a family of mixed descent, there are challenges within the healthcare system that we encounter that patients who don’t have the same background often take for granted,” said Lafontaine.
In order to ensure that Lafontaine would have the bright future his parents envisioned for him, his mother stayed home and homeschooled him. He was enrolled in Tae Kwon Do, where he eventually obtained a black belt.
His parents told him about his Pacific Island culture and his Aboriginal heritage to give him a strong sense of himself.
“These are important things in her life,” her mother said. “And these are the things that will help him get through the racism, if he understands himself he feels good about himself.”
He also played in the family group – called the 5th generation – for many years, which gave him confidence.
“There’s nothing that boosts a young man’s self-esteem than having a crowd of people screaming,” said Lafontaine.
Traveling to different communities on a tour also helped him learn to relate to people from all walks of life.
“Being in the group really taught me to hear and understand people,” he said.
He still encountered difficulties during his first year of medical school. But Lafontaine credits his mentors as champions in his journey to reach his goal.
“My chemistry teacher, who passed away a few weeks ago, [is] really the only reason I did a bachelor of science, ”he said.
While he was feeling bad about medical school and considering quitting, another mentor introduced him to the dean, who had lunch with him and encouraged him to continue.
“I’m very convinced that I was really surrounded by a group of people who for some reason saw me as something more than I saw myself,” said Lafontaine.
“I think I pass [the hardships] had so much to do with the people around me.
WORKING FOR OTHERS IN HEALTH Driven by the need to help others, he fulfills his mother’s wish to become a doctor.
But through his work, he continued to live and hear about troubling stories, including the abuse of Indigenous patients in the health care system.
He even saw his brother, dentist Dr Kamea Lafontaine, struggle to get the proper care in hospital for a serious illness.
In a thought-provoking conversation, his brother told him, “At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what my education is, it doesn’t matter what I do for the community or my reputation.
“When I put on this dress. I just became another Indian.
The conversation was a catalyst for change, prompting them to launch Safespace – a website and app where patients can anonymously report racism in their healthcare. The Safespace Networks pilot project has also partnered with Friendship Centers in British Columbia.
Dr Michael Kirlew, doctor and friend of Lafontaine, said Lafontaine’s work is needed.
“We have systemic racism issues in the healthcare system, we see systemic racism in the criminal justice system, in the education system, I think Alika is the right fit for the job. […] to take the Canadian Medical Association to the next level, ”he said.
“He’s so passionate about people, so passionate about improving health outcomes for all, and he supports that passion not just with words, but with actions.”
Lafontaine knows that his voice counts even more as he takes the helm of the CMA.
And he goes into work with clear goals.
He said it was important to address “not only racism, but also sexism, classism, ableism and all the different ways we take away responsibility from patients and colleagues.”
He also wants to examine how we treat those who work in medicine.
One of the problems with talking about “health heroes,” as we’ve learned throughout the pandemic, is how dehumanizing that kind of consideration can be.
“This is built into this idea that it’s okay for someone to sacrifice all that they are in order to keep the system sustainable,” he said, adding that he wanted to examine “how can we change work environments to reduce burnout. “
He said being native allows him to bring a unique perspective, but that’s not the only thing he brings.
“But even more important, because I have been helpless in my life. I know how to create space, ”he said. “I understand how to amplify other people who want to share their experiences, but maybe don’t know how.”
And as he prepares for the new challenge of standing up for Canadian doctors and healthcare in the midst of a pandemic, he looks to the future.
“I think leadership is really about creating the next leaders,” he said. “I’m really excited for the next few years, for the opportunity I will have to create this space in the same way the people in my family life have created space for me. “
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