Youth leader

Calm in chaos: The Canadian Medical Association’s first Indigenous leader takes the reins

GRANDE PRAIRIE, Alta. – In a brightly lit operating room at sunrise, Dr. Alika Lafontaine shares why he chose to become an anesthetist as he fills syringes for his first patient of the day.

The 40-year-old doctor – who on Monday became the first Indigenous president and the youngest of the Canadian Medical Association – says he wanted to be a surgeon for several years before following an anesthesiologist who told him he should consider instead this domain.

“Around 3 a.m. there was a coded call. We both rushed there,” Lafontaine said in an interview earlier this month as he started a 24-hour shift at the Grande Prairie Regional Hospital in the north. -western Alberta.

“It was interesting to watch my friend work because a few minutes after he walked into the room, all of a sudden this scene of chaos became really quiet. The patient was stabilized. Everyone knew what he was doing. was doing,” says Lafontaine.

“I want to be able to help in situations that seem chaotic.”

The new CMA president has spent the past year rubbing shoulders with his predecessor, pediatrician Dr. Katharine Smart, who is based in Whitehorse.

Lafontaine – who is of Cree, Anishinaabe, Métis and Pacific Islander ancestry – must now speak on behalf of the group, which represents the interests of Canadian healthcare professionals and patients by engaging with governments, communities and governments. others for some 155 years.

“It’s as old as Canada,” he says.

He says he wants to celebrate becoming the group’s first Indigenous president, but also wonders why it took so long.

“Every time you see ‘first’, what it usually triggers for people is that something might be different: ‘Maybe this person will hear my problems differently’, and that’s a beautiful thing,” he said.

Lafontaine says a lot of voices have been left off the table when it comes to the healthcare system.

“There is gender inequality, and not just racism specific to Indigenous people, but also racism against black people and other people of color,” he says.

“Once you’ve created the space around the table for these people to sit, it’s really important to move on.”

Born and raised in Regina, the doctor was raised middle class with four siblings, a nurturing father and a stay-at-home mom.

His family also toured together in a popular R&B and rock band called 5th Generation.

His parents, who always encouraged education, were crushed when he had language difficulties as a child and a teacher called him developmentally retarded.

Lafontaine says he put a lot of thought into this label.

“I looked around and saw colleagues who reminded me of how I felt when teachers said to me, ‘There’s just no hope for you,'” he says. .

“But those experiences where we feel broken – they help us appreciate the things around us that need a little help.”

He says the healthcare system was already struggling to keep its head above water before the COVID-19 pandemic hit in early 2020 – and the strain has only grown.

Headlines about overwhelmed emergency rooms, increasing wait times for surgeries, staff and equipment shortages, and burnout have become commonplace.

“When systems are in crisis, healthcare providers are ready to overcome it. That’s what we trained for,” said Lafontaine. “But it’s not normal to always be in crisis. This is one of the reasons that burnout is really accelerating.

In addition to improving work environments, he says he also wants to advocate for a national standard of health care.

“We talk a lot about quality improvement and patient safety, but we still have 13 different provincial and territorial systems that have very different ideas of what that looks like,” he says.

“Especially in human resources, we need to make sure we support our existing workforce, making sure people don’t leave.”

He says he wants to tap into his Indigenous identity while advocating for solutions.

“As someone who comes from a background where I know what it’s like to have no voice, I can reach out in a different way. I can feel what people are feeling in a way that doesn’t weigh as much on the person feeling the pain,” he says.

“One of the greatest things about culture is (it) grounds you in your standing with the world and with each other… It grounds you especially in times of stress and crisis.”

This report from The Canadian Press was first published on August 22, 2022.

This story was produced with the financial assistance of Meta and the Canadian Press News Fellowship.

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