New graduate program in Black health at U of T addresses 'a life-and-death matter,' creator says

Advocates say the launch of a new master's program in Black health at the University of Toronto is an exciting step in the right direction to making health care accessible and equitable for Black communities, but it must continue with the creation of similar projects locally and abroad.

Black health experts hope to see similar initiatives throughout Canada and around the world

Roberta Timothy, an assistant professor at the University of Toronto's Dalla Lana School of Public Health, says the launch of the new master's program in Black Health may be the first of its kind globally. (Adam Coish)

Advocates say the launch of a new master's program in Black health at the University of Toronto is an exciting step in the right direction to make health care accessible and equitable to Black communities.

The program can help the next generation of health providers improve outcomes in Black communities that are still feeling the effects of centuries of racism, colonization and violence, says Roberta Timothy, an assistant professor at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health and the program's creator.

"It's a life-and-death matter for us," Timothy said.

"Training folks to not only do better, but to create safer spaces for us to seek health care, and to seek healing and wellness, is the main goal."

The program, which will run for two years for full-time students and four years for part-time, will welcome its first cohort of 10 students in person next year.

Timothy believes this is the first program of its kind, but she hopes it doesn't stay that way. She and other advocates hope it inspires similar projects both locally and abroad because Black, Indigenous and other racialized groups were in need of better health care before the pandemic, and were hardest-hit during it. 

"We are doing this to create social change and social justice within our communities, and hopefully others," said Timothy.

Forced to take action

Poor health in Black communities is the direct result of poor access to, and discrimination in, job and housing markets — as well as in the health-care, education, criminal justice, and social welfare systems, according to the federal government's 2020 snapshot on Black health.

The Black Health Alliance says these social determinants raise Black people's risk of getting chronic diseases such as diabetes. And without Black workers who are attuned to the nuances of Black health care, the problem only gets worse, the alliance states.

Last year, Toronto's Black Scientists' Task Force on Vaccine Equity found that even though the Black community was more likely than white people to get COVID-19, it was more hesitant about the vaccine for several reasons, including mistrust of medical professionals, misinformation, and questions over the efficacy of the vaccines. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Black advocates have been calling for acknowledgement and change for decades.

But it was the public reckoning surrounding the murder of George Floyd in the United States, and Black people who died after interactions with police officers like D'Andre Campbell and Regis Korchinski-Paquet that turned the tide in favour of change, says Angela Robertson, the executive director of the Parkdale Queen West Community Health Centre.

"That has, I think, forced institutions to take action," Robertson told CBC News.

The program is a show of support that affirms the experience of Black people, but she says it alone won't be enough to bring change without support and more Black-specific initiatives across institutions.

"There's a lot of work to be done."

'A hard win to get'

Students will learn about Black research, treatment and resistance in health care, and will get a chance to work in the field with community organizations. While the program is open to everybody, Timothy hopes to highlight Black health professionals. For now, core courses will be reserved for the inaugural cohort, with some availability to all students at the school.

Timothy says the response to program has mostly been positive, with many current medical practitioners reaching out to tell her if this existed when they were in school, they'd apply in a heartbeat.

Dr. Fatimah Jackson-Best, an assistant professor at McMaster University in Hamilton, is one of them. 

Angela Roberston, left, the executive director of Parkdale Queen West Community Health Centre, and Dr. Fatimah Jackson-Best, right, an assistant professor at McMaster University, say they want to see more Black health initiatives in academia and beyond. (Submitted by Parkdale Queen West Community Health Centre and Fatimah Jackson-Best)

"I remember being one of very few Black students there very interested in Black health," said Jackson-Best, who is also the project lead for the Black Health Alliance's mental health project, called Pathways to Care.

"These kinds of degree programs, they're hard fought for and it's a hard win to get. But it's so encouraging."

Jackson-Best says it takes a lot of time and administrative work for these types of projects to happen — especially when Black health professionals often get confronted with questions about why these programs need to exist in the first place. 

Timothy herself notes at the beginning of her career, she was looked down upon for her work and advocacy in Black health, and was told she'd never get a job if she kept it up.

But Robertson, Timothy and Jackson-Best all hope to see the program expand, and other schools follow suit.

"I hope that they'll see this as a spark that will ignite a huge fire, and a huge focus on Black health," said Jackson-Best.

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.

A banner for Being Black in Canada.
Being Black in Canada highlights stories about Black Canadians. (CBC)


Vanessa Balintec is a reporter for CBC Toronto who likes writing stories about labour, equity and community. She previously worked for stations in New Brunswick and Kitchener-Waterloo. You can reach her at and on Twitter at @vanessabalintec.