As a child, Dr. Alica Lafontaine had a stutter and was classified as having a learning disability. He says the teachers told him that he would never graduate from high school.
“I definitely had learning challenges,” La Fontaine said. White coat, black art‘s Dr. Brian Goldman. “People were, I think, quick, when I was a kid, in classifying me as someone who couldn’t make it because of this.”
On August 21, La Fontaine took over as president of the Canadian Medical Association (CMA), becoming the first Aboriginal leader.
It comes at a time when the health care system is grappling with challenges exacerbated by the pandemic: doctors are overwhelmed, nurses are resigning in droves, patients face long waits in the emergency room.
As CMA Chair, he will oversee more than 68,000 member physicians and trainees. The organization is Canada’s largest advocacy group for physicians.
“Leadership is a continuum where you initially believe the most important part is getting the loudest voice, and eventually, you realize the most important part is amplifying the voices of others,” Lafontaine said.
“I hope doctors across the country feel they’ve heard in ways they’ve never heard before.”
Born and raised in Treaty Territory 4 in southern Saskatchewan, Lafontaine works as an anesthesiologist at Grande Prairie Regional Hospital in Alberta.
He says the personal challenges he faced growing up, and his experiences as an Aboriginal physician—who has ancestry from Métis, Ojibway, Cree and Pacific Islander—help understand those who felt they had no voice.
With the support of his parents and their belief that education is “the path to a better life” – and that their son can become something more than teachers expected of him as a child – La Fontaine’s mother took him out of elementary school and taught him at home.
Childhood experiences a ‘big motivator’
At the age of 14, Lafontaine says he graduated from high school. He attended medical school and finished his residency when he was twenty-eight years old.
said Lafontaine, who also suffered from hearing problems caused by ear infections when he was younger.
La Fontaine described these childhood experiences as a “big motivator” for him.
He spoke with Goldman about his hopes and priorities as head of the Capital Markets Authority. Here is part of their conversation.
Not a day goes by without hearing on social media about the emergency department being closed for a few hours or a few days. What do you think of what’s going on? Because there are people who say that the system is on the verge of collapse, which I think is probably an exaggeration.
I think it depends on what kind of place you are in. HRH crises affect people differently depending on the availability and choices of services.
If you had one emergency room for the whole city, like here in Grand Prairie, HR health crises would hit us much differently.
she has [the Grande Prairie] The emergency department ever closed?
This did not. But there are a lot of emergency departments in the surrounding area that have been closed, and this puts a lot of pressure on our area [ER] Obviously, because patients need to be examined somewhere because of the problems they have.
I think in certain areas things are on the verge of falling apart. I think these places tend to be outside of our main centers.
I think the stress of having to be there all the time is something that has made healthcare workers across the spectrum a natural. It has become quite normal to deny nurses leave, and assign them to return to the hospital. It has become very normal for doctors to work beyond their stress and endurance.
We now live in this environment where we have this backlog of care… hundreds of thousands of people who didn’t get care because we closed care in the middle of a pandemic because of what happened with the burden on our hospitals and other things.
People now have enough room to realize that the things we did during COVID are not normal things for us to do, and there are ramifications for everything we do, right?
The…the consequence of not taking time off from work is harming your body, harming your relationships, and harming your ability to be happy and optimistic. People need space to recover. And sometimes this space is not given because the system is used to saying “Keep working. You have to come to work”. As a result, people are turning away.
You are about to assume the mantle of president of the Canadian Medical Association. How do you feel?
It’s surreal. I’m thinking about the confidence my colleagues in Alberta have placed in me in being chosen as the new CMA President, and also…the mantle of being the voice of Canadian doctors and what that kind of means.
The role of the CMA Chair is to help people understand how their daily work fits into the broader context of the health care system. You know, how do you relate the ambitious goals you have to nurture when you come into contact with the system’s resistance to doing things better?
I think pretty much, doctors all over the country are really struggling with the feeling that… they just aren’t important in their patients’ lives anymore… sometimes they feel like they’re suffering alone when we’re all kind of struggling together.
And the opportunity for me in the role of CMA President… is to be someone who can kind of put those pieces together again.
Healing will take a long time. Obviously, it won’t be 100 percent resolved within the year he becomes president. But I think we can all make a huge impact when we tell the truth where we stand.
You are the first Aboriginal doctor in this role. What do you want to achieve as the first Aboriginal CMA president in Canada?
I would really like to normalize that Aboriginal doctors can fill these positions — they can lead these organizations.
It’s part of just creating a space for not just the indigenous communities, but the communities that weren’t at the table and that should be at the table.
I think we all logically know that we are trying to solve problems, [and] If we don’t bring the people who really are having problems to the table, we’re missing out on the most important parts of understanding the problem and within systems that have historically excluded voices or, you know, pushed people away from the table.
I think the power of having voices in office – people who hold positions they’ve never held before – is that they can see who’s missing out.
Written by Robbie Boyza. Produced by Jeff Gods and Dr. Brian Goldman with the assistance of Amina Zafar. Edit the question and answer for length and clarity.