Skip to content

The Messy, Imperfect, Earnest, Too-Soon-to-Be-Fully-Trusted DFM Response to Anti-Racism: Interim Reflections

I hope Black History Month was different for you this year.  It was for me.  The stories and history and voices of remarkable people whose excellence has been largely overlooked or forgotten felt like a gift to me.  A humble token, offered to me, a white woman leader in the department, with a daring hope that I and other members of our predominantly white leadership team won’t wait for another 11 months to celebrate, embrace and be changed by the stories, the courage, the workarounds and the resilience of Black Canadians.  So many have waited for too long for their contributions to be seen and valued and to receive the respect and acknowledgement that many of us take for granted.

There are other signals, reasons to hope that our department’s commitment to anti-racism and to creating a truly inclusive space for all is more than pledges or lofty promises.  Our Anti-Racism Collaborative (name still in process) has gathered in varied configurations to identify how those with lived experience of being racialized can be recognized and supported in helping to shape our Department’s priorities and actions.

This collection of learners, faculty and staff from all corners of the department are open and willing to be consultants, collaborators, advocates, educators and ambassadors – to share knowledge and experience and best practice to inform and shape all aspects of our collective work. We are so fortunate to have this skill and commitment in our midst!

The Anti-Racism Collaborative has brought ongoing clarity and purpose to the priorities our department will embrace. Number one is the need for active support and mentorship of racialized members of our department.  This is followed closely by the need for staff, learner and faculty education, and the urgent need to plan for greater diversity in recruitment.   In parallel, focused attention and care is needed to create safe spaces and mechanisms for racialized department members to report and receive support for the harms of experiencing racism.  This needs to be tied to mechanisms for support, remediation and accountability for those who are identified as enacting or expressing racism – even inadvertently.

We know that all of us have been raised in a world where inequity and injustice have been “baked in”.  As we uncover and unlearn these patterns, we have discovered that even with the best intentions and heaps of goodwill, we can say and do things that can cause harm to others.   This is not a reason to shy away from this important work! Creating the world we all deserve and desire requires our good intentions, our goodwill – and some new skills of listening, forgiving and opening our hearts in new ways.

To help us all learn these new skills, training is underway – collectively and individually.  We have offered training in clinical settings, educational settings, and for administrative staff involved in hiring.  Much more is planned.  We are especially emphasizing training that is more than factual or technical – with time for small groups and discussions and the chance to have conversations that may be new to us all.  Unlearning racism is a personal journey – as well as an institutional one.

Another reason for optimism is our plan to hire a full-time staff person who can bring expertise and program management experience to all our EDI initiatives, including our focus on anti-racism.  I could fill two pages with a list of all the anti-racism activities that have been underway in our department this past year.  This new senior staff role will be invaluable in helping us track these activities, and to ensure we are as effective as possible in linking resources, expertise and opportunities.   This person will also bring expertise to planning conversations and training.

In the midst of my own anti-racism work, I have also been profoundly changed by the patient and generous teaching of Dr. Amy Montour and Dr. Karen Hill.  For our Indigenous colleagues and neighbors, we are not called to “dismantle racism” (although hate and violence is a toxic undercurrent of harm for all who fall short of the racist ideals of “normal”).

Instead, we are called to justice of another kind – to walk alongside and learn from the knowledge and ways of the First Nations, Metis and Inuit Peoples who have lived on this land for centuries, long before Settlers arrived.  Concurrently we are called to do our part in decolonization and reconciliation.  As a physician, I am called to participate and co-create experiences that are respectful and life-giving for all who seek care.  We have seen too starkly how dangerous Western health care can be for Indigenous Peoples, and we are missing out on how much Indigenous Peoples have to teach us all about restoring vitality to our relationships with the land and with one another.

So yes – our response so far has been messy and imperfect. AND, despite the incessant drumbeat of COVID-19 and the enormous tax the pandemic has taken on our usual operating bandwidth, this work has been prioritized and taken seriously.

With heart and courage, we all move forward, one step at a time into a future we all crave.  To the anti-racism work, we must add voice and space for all groups and identities that have been left out and/or targeted for reasons other than skin color.  We will add space to address our own personal stories of being excluded or judged – the work of self-forgiveness and reconciliation is vital to our communal healing.

Calls to justice can happen quickly – the response can feel agonizingly slow.  My sincerest hope is that all of us who yearn for fairness and justice and inclusion – especially those for whom exclusion has been routine – are starting to sit up and take notice that things in the Department of Family Medicine are changing.   And so we continue …

Dr. Cathy Risdon

(Initial drafts of this letter were made much better with comments and input from Dr. Tejal Patel and Tracey Carr.  I am grateful for their wisdom and input.  Any remaining blind spots or biases are completely my own  -I welcome all comment and/or feedback!)



McMaster University Department of Family MedicineMichael G. DeGroote School of Medicine