Canadian Medical Association

Dr. Alika Lafontaine

Dr. Alika Lafontaine

Alberta physician creating spaces for positive change in Indigenous health

Dr. Alika Lafontaine still remembers the time in his life when he was afraid to speak. With a stutter and a learning disability, childhood teachers warned he would be “lucky” to finish high school. But his mother refused to accept this prognosis, telling her son he could become anything — even a physician.

“My mom really pushed me through with her vision of what I could be. She sponsored me into a lot of spaces I never imagined I could participate in.”

Today, as an anesthesiologist in Grande Prairie, Alberta, Dr. Lafontaine is taking the same tack with his own advocacy — using his voice to create spaces where Indigenous communities can work with physicians, politicians and policy-makers to improve Indigenous health care.

The Indigenous Health Alliance is one example of Dr. Lafontaine’s advocacy work. In 2013, he was helping Saskatchewan First Nations figure out why its residents were so sick and uncovered a gap in the quality improvement approach between Indigenous and non-Indigenous patients.

Committed to eliminating these differences across Canada, Dr. Lafontaine drafted and co-led a national strategy with territorial organizations representing 150 First Nations and several national health organizations. That proposal was then submitted to the federal government on behalf of those First Nations — the Indigenous Health Alliance — to advance health transformation.

Last fall, the federal government committed $68 million to the project, and with that money in place, Dr. Lafontaine proudly stepped back to ensure that implementation was led by First Nations.

“When it comes to advocacy, you create the forum and context and then let people have their own conversations about what they want to create.”

With the support of the CMA, Dr. Lafontaine is currently building a different space — a Community of Interest on Indigenous Health — a virtual platform where he hopes physicians and First Nations communities can become sensitized to other perspectives and openly tackle topics like discrimination and racism.

“Unless a practitioner can get to the point where they can honestly address those things, they’ll never start their journey of managing their bias and providing better care.”

In addition to his work with the CMA, Dr. Lafontaine sits on more than a dozen committees and boards related to Indigenous health and is playing an influential role in raising awareness with governments at all levels. His use of storytelling, and his descriptions of real patient encounters and his own experiences as a Cree-Ojibwe-Polynesian, are helping change mindsets.

“I’ve realized that when people are able to be open and share, that’s the beginning of change — that’s a real seed that’s been planted.”

Dr. Alika Lafontaine is receiving the Sir Charles Tupper Award for Political Action for demonstrating recent leadership, commitment and dedication in advancing CMA goals and policies through grassroots advocacy.