History Offers a Vision for the Future

Jan 27, 2021

Professor Emerita Anna Jarvis. Photo by Dan HavesProfessor Emerita Anna Jarvis. Photo by Dan Haves
Albert Einstein said that if you want to know the future, look at the past. Calls to remember history encourage us to gain insight from its lessons, understand what worked and what didn’t, take stock of the progress made, but also see what work remains. So, as we approach Black History Month, and I approach nearly 50 years as part of the medical community in Toronto, I want to share some of my past experiences and reflect on what they suggest about the future. 

When I arrived in Toronto as a medical trainee from my native Jamaica in 1972, I joined a medical workforce that was overwhelmingly White and male. Sexism was overt; I was told by a senior physician that I shouldn’t have accepted the role of chief resident because that was a role for men. Racism was more covert, often expressed by the lack of Black, Indigenous and People of Colour (BIPOC) in professional roles, if in any roles at all. Sometimes this was the result of intentional bigotry, but I also saw how often it was a lack of awareness and sheer ignorance. The lack of exposure to women and people of colour in roles of responsibility, as well as a poor understanding of the issues they faced, allowed the ignorance to be perpetuated. 

I have seen leaders emerge who have been ready to do the hard work of educating our colleagues, and also encourage and support the next generation of professionals. People like Dr. Miriam Rossi, former Associate Dean of Student Affairs & Admissions, and Dr. Dominick Shelton, then an MD student, who helped to establish the Summer Mentorship Program. More recently, leaders like Dr. Lisa Robinson (Vice Dean of Strategy and Operations), Dr. Lisa Richardson (Strategic Lead in Indigenous Health) and Dr. Onye Nnorom (Black Health Theme Lead). Then there are our remarkable learners, some of whom lead and inspire many of us already. 

As I reflect over the span of my career, I see progress. It has been slow, to be sure, but the long road of history is moving us closer towards the goals of inclusion and equality that we should all embrace. I know this pace is frustrating, especially to young people, who look for more immediate results. I know that impulse .… I was young once too. But as we move forward, we can’t leave people behind because of ignorance and we should seek allies whenever — and wherever — possible. That we now openly name anti-Black, anti-Indigenous and other forms of racism is progress. That we provide training in cultural safety and culturally competent care to learners and faculty is progress. That we have offices, programs and professionals dedicated to this work is progress. 

However, there remains work to be done. We must do more to address the intersection of race and socio-economic status, where too little progress has been made. While we have seen people of colour better represented in medicine, very few are drawn from under-resourced neighbourhoods. When generations of families in Canada have been marginalized and subjected to racist treatment, I fear they lose sight of their rightful place within professions like medicine. And, we must do more to support our BIPOC leaders. I have watched too many burn out because they felt like they couldn’t turn down any requests for assistance or advice. Learning to say “no” is an essential skill they can learn through mentorship and the example of other leaders. 

If past is prologue, then I am optimistic. Our institutions are doing more to support Black health, address structural racism, recognize intersectionality and better ensure a diverse workforce that represents the populations they serve. And current BIPOC leaders, and those who will follow them, have gained resources and allies that will quicken the pace of action. We will continue to push forward because our future — namely the learners we train today, those students we inspire to join us soon, and the patients they will treat — deserve nothing less.

D. Anna Jarvis, MB, BS, FRCPC, FAAP, O.Ont.
Professor Emerita, Department of Paediatrics
University of Toronto

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