Ally is a verb!

I again had the wonderful opportunity this week to provide opening remarks at the 2018 Health Innovation and Public Policy Conference. Ever since arriving at the U of S I have been astounded at the initiative of our College of Medicine students and their colleagues across the health science programs in promoting change and improvement for marginalized and disadvantaged individuals and communities.

Again this year the students owned and led an incredible conference with expert speakers from across Canada and the U.S. on an amazing spectrum of topics: the opioid crisis, legalization of marijuana, Indigenous health, the HIV crisis in Saskatchewan, health for refugees and the uninsured, and social media and health advocacy. I would like to congratulate these student leaders and the 400+ participants. Our students inspire all of us.

In my opening remarks I alluded to the three A’s of awareness, advocacy and activism. One of my favourite stories of activism is that of Dr. John Snow and the Broad Street pump. During the London cholera epidemic of 1854, Dr. Snow mapped the cases of cholera to the neighbourhood of the Broad Street water pump. For this work he is known as one of the fathers of modern epidemiology. He became an activist when he successfully advocated for the removal by local authorities of the handle on the pump!

A more personal example is the New Brunswick family physician, a former colleague, Dr. Stephen Hart, who very early in his career led the charge to establish seat belt legislation in that province in 1983. Both are examples of advocacy that led to important change. But are physicians restricted to advocacy only on medical issues?

This brings me to my recent blog supporting Indigenous members of our community following the decision in the Gerald Stanley trial into the death of Colten Boushie. I appreciate all of the personal and public feedback I have received since that time, and have made time for further reading, reflection and conversation as a result.

One of the biggest surprises from the feedback was the perspective expressed by some that a dean of medicine has no place commenting on a legal matter or for that matter any public controversy that was not medical or education-related! This view doesn’t align with a free society, and more importantly it contradicts all we teach about patient-centred care, student-centred education and patient-oriented research. We do not need to be experts to be advocates.

In light of our teaching about the impact of the social determinants of health on our patients and our communities, I believe as physicians we always must place ourselves somewhere on the continuum of awareness to activism. Awareness is a bare minimum! In fact, many have argued in numerous situations involving inequity and injustice that those who are knowledgeable and well-intentioned but silent are, in fact, a barrier to change and progress.

“We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”   – Elie Wiesel (Romanian-born American-Jewish writer, professor, political activist, Nobel laureate and Holocaust survivor.)

Finally, in my reading, I found the statement: “ally is a verb,” which led to even more reflection, and to this blog’s title. Another blogger, Liz Goodwin (on, wrote under the same title and used a metaphor I could understand: running! She said seeing oneself as an ally, in the noun sense, is like running on a sunny temperate day on a flat course.

“Yeah,” I thought, “that is what life is made for!”

But the real runner in me knew if I was to be in the race, I must run hills and intervals, do speed work, and run in rainy weather, on cold days and snow-packed trails, and keep going even when I was too exhausted to do so.

To live the verb form of ally means ongoing learning and self-reflection, listening, focusing on those who do not have my privilege, removing bias and barriers, taking action when appropriate (keeping firmly in mind “nothing about us without us”), and speaking out.

Thanks again for all those who provided feedback. It was appreciated. And I reiterate the College of Medicine’s support to our Indigenous patients, colleagues, and learners as we work to face truth and build reconciliation.