Alberta Doctor Takes Charges as First Indigenous President of the Canadian Medical Association
An Alberta-based physician made history this week as the first Indigenous president of Canada’s most prominent medical organization. On Monday, Dr. Alika Lafontaine, a 40-year-old anaesthesiologist from Grande Prairie, assumed the presidency of the Canadian Medical Association (CMA). Founded in 1867, the organization is the country’s largest professional association for physicians, and advocates for medical issues. Dr. Lafontaine is also the youngest-ever president in the organization’s 155-year history.
Dr. Lafontaine was born in Treaty 4 territory in southern Saskatchewan. As reported by the CBC, as a child he struggled in school due to learning challenges, poor hearing, and a stutter. His teachers dismissed him, and predicted he would be “lucky” to graduate high school. These experiences were a “huge motivator” for Lafontaine, who says he was afraid to speak out in his early years.
Lafontaine’s parents were strongly supportive of his education, and believed that his teachers were overlooking his true potential. After Lafontaine was diagnosed with a learning disability in grade school, his parents decided to homeschool him. Contrary to his teachers’ predictions, Lafontaine went on to an extraordinary academic career: he graduated high school at age 14, received his doctorate in medicine from the University of Saskatchewan at 24, and completed his residency by 28.
Dr. Lafontaine says that he hopes his personal background allows him to bring a new perspective to his role. He wants to advocate for people like himself, who felt unable to speak out. And he is making it a priority to bring communities to the table that have previously been excluded from medical discourse, or face unequal health outcomes.
A particular focus of Dr. Lafontaine’s past work has been advocating for improved healthcare in Indigenous communities. He believes that it is important for Indigenous people to see people like them in the medical field, and to normalize Indigenous people in leadership. Dr. Lafontaine previously helmed the development of a national campaign to reduce disparities between Indigenous and non-Indigenous patients on behalf of the Indigenous Health Alliance, and successfully secured $68 million in federal funding for the project. In 2019, he received the CMA’s Sir Charles Tupper Award for Political Advocacy for his efforts.
Dr. Lafontaine also advocates for healthcare workers, who he says are suffering from high rates of burnout due to the Coronavirus pandemic. Restoring a sense of normalcy and a healthy work-life balance are among his top priorities following years of crisis conditions at many medical centers. And as a doctor in a rural region, he also has firsthand experience with how a shortage of medical workers in many parts of Canada is exacerbating these problems, leading to hospital closures and scarcity of care. He is exploring strategies to ameliorate these problems, which he says have left medical networks in some rural areas on the brink of collapse.