Nfld. & Labrador·Point of View

A doctor was mocked by a judge for his accent. I hope you can relate

An Alberta judge’s critique of a forensic pathologist’s dropping of Hs and mispronouncing vowels hurt deeply, and does not bode well for Canada’s proud heritage of pluralism, writes physician Boluwaji Ogunyemi.

Wherever an accent is from, it shouldn't be cause to dismiss someone's expertise, says Dr. Boluwaji Ogunyemi

Dr. Boluwaji Ogunyemi says it is wrong to dismiss someone's credibility because they have an accent, whether that accent comes from another part of Canada or another country. (Ritche Perez)

Canada is seen worldwide as a diverse, progressive nation. In a country with two official languages — where pluralism is practised and where multiculturalism has been adopted as official government policy — our status may seem well-deserved.

However, recent comments by an Alberta justice belie our reputation.

Those comments also should resonate in my home province of Newfoundland and Labrador, where people have all too often been mocked for how they talk.

Last month, Justice Terry Clackson wrote a decision — finding Alberta parents Collet and David Stephan not guilty of failing to provide the necessaries of life for their late son — that drew the ire of many.

It is disconcerting that a factor of his decision was the accent and manner of speech of the Crown's medical expert witness.

"His ability to articulate his thoughts in an understandable fashion was severely compromised by: his garbled enunciation; his failure to use appropriate endings for plurals and past tenses; his failure to use the appropriate definite and indefinite articles; his repeated emphasis on the wrong syllables; dropping his Hs; mispronouncing his vowels; and the speed of his responses," Clackson wrote.

Dr. Bamidele Adeagbo conducted the autopsy on Ezekiel Stephan, and determined that he died of bacterial meningitis. (In an earlier trial, the boy's parents, who had given Ezekiel herbal remedies, had been found guilty of depriving their son of treatment that could have saved his life.)

As a physician of Nigerian ancestry, as an immigrant and, most important, as a Canadian, I am dispirited and surprised by the justice's comments.

I hope that his statement does not set a precedent in our pluralistic nation. With fears of populism bleeding into Canada from below the 49th parallel, we should think twice before disregarding substance for a lack of flair or overlooking expert opinion because of an accent, different pronunciations or grammatical mistakes that may be displeasing to the ear.

What if the medical expert had a thick accent akin to that of some Newfoundland and Labrador residents — one that is sometimes met with bemusement?

Put another way, we must not throw the baby out with the proverbial bathwater.

What if the medical expert had a thick accent akin to that of some Newfoundland and Labrador residents — one that is sometimes met with bemusement? After all, H-dropping and H-insertion, as cited by Justice Clackson, are quite common here, especially those from more rural locales.

The message the judge sends is clear. If even a specialist physician's expert opinion is to be reduced in court because of an accent and manners of speech, then how can others who are not furnished by Dr Adeagbo's credentials be taken seriously?

A call to do better

Less than 800 kilometres from the Stephans' home in Glenwood, Alta., 400 physicians of Nigerian ancestry in Canada (a small fraction of the total number practising in this country) convened in Kelowna for the 2019 meeting of the Canadian Association of Nigerian Physicians and Dentists.

Even if we consider Alberta alone, we quickly learn that physicians who are Nigerian immigrants serve the public by diagnosing and managing patients in over a dozen specialties, from family medicine to obstetrics to pediatrics.

Immigrant physicians work in every medical setting in Canada and are overrepresented in underserviced communities. Indeed, hundreds of physicians employ a similar accent and manner of speech as Dr. Adeagbo when they counsel patients with cancer, manage children with birth complications, and comfort patients during their final hours.

Justice Terry Clackson, right, found David and Collet Stephan, left, not guilty of failing to provide the necessaries of life to 19-month-old Ezekiel. (The Canadian Press/Court of Queen's Bench of Alberta)

While training on the mainland, I found myself regularly defending Newfoundland when disparaging "jokes" and comments were made about being from the island or about the accent of her people.

We should refrain from dismissing credibility because someone has an accent — whether they're from a different region of Canada or a different part of the globe.

While it is comforting that dozens of academics, lawyers and physicians nationwide have signed a formal petition sent to the Canadian Judicial Council to condemn Judge Clackson's remarks, I am buoyed more by the denunciation on the part of everyday individuals through social media and other fora.

From Quebec's ban on religious symbols by public service workers to awaiting the results of our country's readiness to vote for the first visible minority to permanently lead a major national political party, Canada continues to face issues related to cultural integration, pluralism and tolerance.

Ogunyemi is a St. John's dermatologist who also works at Memorial University's medical school. (Riche Perez)

We should refrain from dismissing credibility because someone has an accent — whether they're from a different region of Canada or a different part of the globe. As Canadians, we should endeavour to continually improve the tolerance and inclusiveness that characterizes Canada.

Better is always possible.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

About the Author

Dr. Boluwaji Ogunyemi is a writer, dermatologist and clinical assistant professor of medicine at Memorial University.