British Columbia

UNBC professor opens up about multiple sclerosis after living quietly with diagnosis for years

The Métis scholar was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis at the age of 19 and kept it a secret until two years ago when the illness began to impact on her physical abilities. Now she's speaking out to raise public awareness about Indigenous people living with this autoimmune disorder.

Rheanna Robinson hopes Indigenous people with the disease will get more help

Rheanna Robinson, assistant professor of First Nations studies at the University of Northern British Columbia in Prince George, opens up about the challenges of having multiple sclerosis. (Submitted by Rheanna Robinson)

Rheanna Robinson's resumé is impressive: she's a professor of First Nations Studies at University of Northern British Columbia in Prince George and advises the university's president on Indigenous issues.

But the Métis scholar from Smithers, B.C., had been keeping a secret that she feared could hurt her career — until recently.

She's one of the estimated 77,000 Canadians living with multiple sclerosis, an autoimmune disorder that impacts the brain and spinal cord. 

Dizziness, depression and difficulty walking are some of the symptoms of the disease, according to MS Society of Canada.

Career disruption and courage to speak up

Diagnosed at the age of 19, Robinson initially didn't feel much impact of the disease on her physical abilities, but two years ago it became so debilitating that she had to take a leave from the university and could no longer hide her problem.

Now the 43-year-old professor has to rely on a tricycle and a cane for mobility. It's still unknown when she can go back to work.

"To say that that [career disruption] was anything less devastating would be an understatement," she told Carolina de Ryk, host of CBC's Daybreak North.

Robinson now has to rely on a tricycle for mobility. (Submitted by Rheanna Robinson)

Robinson now volunteers as an ambassador with the MS Society of Canada, advocating for more attention to Indigenous people who live with the condition in B.C.'s northern communities. She feels the disorder has been "whitewashed" in the sense that resources to help people cope are focused on members of the urban, white middle class.

"I know many other [Indigenous] people in the North and in this province go through the same thing, so I feel that this is a good time for me to be doing this [advocacy]," she said.

But Robinson had to take a leap of faith to open up about her health issues.

"I'm an utterly private person," she said. "It took me a while to accept the fact that I had to be comfortable with sharing and disclosing, and not worrying about any potential assumptions, stereotypes or stigmas that may be associated with living with a debilitating disease."

Raising awareness of Indigenous people living with MS

Robinson says she's grateful that despite the illness, she has been able to accomplish three academic degrees and have two children. But the scholar believes that Canadians need a better understanding about the various challenges that other Indigenous people with multiple sclerosis are facing, especially during the Indigenous Disability Awareness Month of November.

"It [the awareness month] really speaks to the need for there to be a larger conversation about… [Indigenous] trajectories where disability starts overtaking some of our dreams and goals and desires as we move forward." 

Tap the link below to listen to Rheanna Robinson's interview on Daybreak North:

Rheanna Robinson is a Metis scholar and professor at UNBC who recently revealed she is living with multiple sclerosis. She speaks to Carolina de Ryk. 9:38

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Winston Szeto

Journalist, CBC Kelowna

Winston Szeto is a digital journalist based in Kelowna, British Columbia. Send him tips via email winston.szeto@cbc.ca or Twitter @winstonszeto

With files from Betsy Trumpener and Daybreak North

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