Medical association’s first Indigenous president looks to fix health care crisis, considering a future in politics

The first-ever Indigenous president of the Canadian Medical Association (CMA) has taken over the helm during a time of extreme crisis in the healthcare system.

“It’s been a whirlwind,” said Dr. Alika Lafontaine, who took over as president of the CMA in August.

Lafontaine said there are so many different challenges right now that it can feel overwhelming at times.

There is a crisis in health human resources, access to care with emergency departments overwhelmed in urban centres, as well as rural areas, First Nations and Métis settlements and worker burnout, just to name a few.

Lafontaine, who has Métis, Cree, Anishinaabe and Pacific Islander ancestry, believes one of the great opportunities in the midst of this crisis is to rebuild a better system, including for Indigenous peoples who face racism, stereotyping and discrimination in the health care system.

There is also a need to get more Indigenous people working in the system. Roughly one per cent of doctors in Canada are Indigenous.

“I think one thing to acknowledge, is we’ve never had more Indigenous physicians in the country, practicing as we have right now. We’ve also never had as many Indigenous physicians in leadership positions doing important work and working with communities as we do today,” said Lafontaine on the latest episode of Face to Face.

“Now, that being said, one per cent is much too low and we must do better. And I think a big part of that is making sure our youth can see us in practice, out there doing things and making an impact in communities,” said Lafontaine.

The path to becoming the president of the CMA wasn’t an easy one for Lafontaine, who is a practicing anesthesiologist in Grand Prairie, Alta.

He said Indigenous youth can succeed despite whatever odds they may be up against.

“One of the things I struggled with early on in elementary school was being labelled as learning disabled,” said Lafontaine.

“My parents were told I would never graduate high school or go on to university. That was a challenge that we came together as a family and they helped me a lot to overcome,” he said.

“And, over time, a lot of the struggles that you’re dealing with right now and the self doubt that you might be holding with yourself, if you put in the work and you surround yourself with people that believe in you, you have the same opportunities that I’ve had in my life.”

Lafontaine would go on to be the youngest recipient of the Indspire Award. In 2008, he won CBC’s Canada’s Next Great Prime Minister competition.

He said running for political office has been discussed.

“One of the things that I’ve always been committed to is moving places where I can make a difference. I haven’t planned out too far ahead these different opportunities,” said Lafontaine. “Even with being president of the CMA, I didn’t actually think about it until pretty close to when the election actually opened.

“But if there’s an opportunity to impact and improve things for the country and if there’s ideas that I can bring forward and help to amplify that other people have, I’d really love the opportunity to participate in politics and continue to make a difference.”

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