Dr. Marcia Anderson on overcoming racism and owning her voice in the Canadian medical community

"As much as you work from anger, equally work from love. We need to feel and be fueled by both."

"As much as you work from anger, equally work from love. We need to feel and be fueled by both"

(Credit: University of Manitoba)

Dr. Marcia Anderson is a mother of two and the executive director of Indigenous academic affairs at the Ongomiizwin Indigenous Institute of Health and Healing, part of the Rady Faculty of Health Sciences at the University of Manitoba. She recently developed an anti-racism action plan there in direct response to a number of Indigenous medical students reporting that they were facing hostile bigotry within the learning environment.

"It certainly isn't a new problem," Anderson recognizes. "[But] it was discouraging and disappointing to know that despite all the work that we have done, they still continue to hear the same racist statements that I heard and that my older colleagues heard when we went through [training]."

Anderson knew medicine was her calling from an early age. "I started saying that I was going to be a doctor before I was four years old," she says. "Junior high, high school, even through university — the decisions I made were heavily influenced by my goal to be a doctor."

Her focus, dedication and hard work definitely paid off: Anderson, a Cree-Anishinaabe woman, became the youngest known Indigenous graduate from the University of Manitoba's medical school in 2002 at age 24. And at age 26, the medical doctor, who now specializes in public health and internal medicine, became the youngest president of the Indigenous Physicians Association of Canada (IPAC), a position she held for three years. For those not in the know, IPAC is an organization that acts as a national voice for First Nations, Métis and Inuit physicians and medical students.

And as much as the negative ignited this medical professional's leadership fire, powerfully positive experiences played an equal part. "Meeting other Indigenous students and doctors, building connections to community and culture, and really having a firm commitment to reconnecting to my own identity as an Indigenous woman … through that, [I learned] all the strengths and beauty in who we are," she says.

Last year, Anderson made the Women's Executive Network's list of Canada's most powerful women and was awarded a Top 100 prize. The physician hopes her visibility as a leader will show the country's young Indigenous girls that they, too, can hold their own.

(Courtesy Dr Marcia Anderson)

"Part of the reason I think it's so important for people like me to be visible is that the dominant stories about Indigenous women in our media are stories of victimhood: they're stories about the national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women … stories about forced and coerced sterilization," she says. "We need to start shifting those discourses, and our girls need to see people like me who are surrounded by other strong, powerful women … [who] are standing up and doing work in positive and powerful ways."

Here, Anderson talks key life lessons and what's at the root of most of the health gaps between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples.

On the most life-changing advice she's ever received:

"One message that I always come back to is a message from Maria Campbell, who is a Cree-Métis elder from Saskatchewan. She essentially told me to own my space…. I'd go into these meeting rooms with the deans of the medical schools, and it would be sixteen older white men and one older white woman and me. I felt so insecure in my place and in my voice. [Maria taught me] to … recognize that they may all be older and experienced in different ways, but actually, [with] what I knew about Indigenous health, I was the expert in that room. I had to own that and use my voice. That's been a really important one, and there [have] been other [teachings] that follow along with that, too, like not making yourself smaller for anybody."

On closing the unacceptable health gap:

"One of the things I often say, even as a physician, is we can have the best health-care system in the world … but if we have not created the conditions that support the equal opportunity to be healthy, we can't fix the health status. We also need to be thinking about housing. And the thing is, this is not a mystery to the general Canadian public. I actually think most of the general public knows about the housing crisis in First Nations communities, about mould, about how that contributes to tuberculosis, about the devastating, all-too-frequent house fires…. I think there's just a block in creating the social will and political will to actually address issues. So I think a big part of the work has to be [done] not necessarily within Indigenous communities themselves, but with the general public. Also, there is so much work to be done around spiritual wellness, and that's tied in with language and cultural reclamation."

On instilling core values in her two young daughters:

"Since their birth, I have always made sure to have books for them that feature brown people on the pages and where brown people are the main characters — the heroes in the stories. And, as much as possible, [I make sure to have books] that are written by Indigenous and other people of colour. I think representation really matters for young kids. Similarly, I would buy them dolls that were brown. I have nurtured and I am really blessed to have a circle that features a lot of very smart and successful Indigenous people, [and] we spend a lot of time with them.

Their normal is to be surrounded by Indigenous physicians, nurses, authors, politicians [and] educators … so what they know of being Indigenous is [centred] around hard work, education, community, connection and service to the community through your gifts.

We are [also] part of our community, and we stand with our community. So we will go out and celebrate at events, like National Indigenous Peoples Day or the Manito Ahbee [Festival], our big Manitoba powwow. But also, when there is injustice and when there are protests, I will take them out there. We go to Idle No More [protests]. We went to some of the protests after the trials in the murders of Colten Boushie and Tina Fontaine. Those are tough, heavy subjects, but that sense that we stand with our community in time of injustices is important to me."

On what she would tell her 20-something self:

"You're on the right path — don't doubt it, and don't doubt yourself…. Being in the medical environment as an Indigenous woman, it's hard not to internalize the messages that you hear. For example, from either faculty members or students, I might have heard, 'You're only here because you got in through the easy way,' or 'You're only here because you're Indigenous' — comments and questions that undermined my right to be there, which also then undermined my sense of belonging…. Whereas now, I certainly would not worry about that in the same way at all. There was definitely a growth and an evolution of trusting my own voice, but also holding other people responsible for their reactions and feelings that come up in response to it.

And secondly, [I'd tell myself] as much as you work from anger, equally work from love. We need to feel and be fueled by both, and you need to show both."

Natasha Bruno is a Toronto-based freelance journalist with an obsession for beauty, health & wellness, women's issues, and curly hair. Follow her journey on Instagram @natashajbruno.


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