With Canada’s health care system on the brink of collapse, Dr. Alika Lafontaine is taking the helm of the CMA at one of the most challenging times in recent history.
Burnout and exhaustion are at record highs among health care workers and lengthy surgical and clinical backlogs are plaguing the system. Problems that existed long before COVID-19 have only worsened during the pandemic.
“I don’t believe Canadians realize just how close to the precipice we are,” he says. “Physician advocacy has never been more important.”
Whether it was calling for federal legislation to protect health care workers from harassment or advocating for necessary resources to keep hospitals afloat, Dr. Lafontaine has backed his health care worker colleagues during his term as CMA president-elect.
This work, though, isn’t new for the Grande Prairie anesthesiologist.
Dr. Lafontaine — who is the first Indigenous president in the CMA’s 155-year history — has spent his career working to transform Canada’s health care, particularly in service of marginalized communities.
As national medical lead of the Indigenous Health Alliance (IHA) from 2013 to 2017, he 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 by those First Nations and received a commitment of $68 million over three years to advance Indigenous-led health transformation.
He also co-founded SafeSpace Networks, an online platform to help marginalized patients navigate health systems and report their experiences. The project launched in 2020 in partnership with friendship centres across British Columbia.
A historic presidency
Born in Treaty 4 and Métis homelands of southern Saskatchewan, Dr. Lafontaine has a mixed ancestry of Métis, Cree, Anishinaabe and Pacific Islander ancestry. He is the first Indigenous president of the CMA. The 2022 election cycle for CMA president saw the inclusion of two Indigenous candidates for the first time.
“Any time we bring different lived experience into leadership positions, we have the opportunity to change the trajectory of those systems. That’s the real power of diverse and inclusive leadership — we can imagine a different future,” he said.
Ahead of his election, Dr. Lafontaine focused on promoting healthy working conditions and the creation of a culturally safe health system. He also called for national licensure, which would help prepare Canadian physicians for future health care crises.
“It’s also time to eliminate racism, sexism, ableism, classism and all other ‘-isms’ that permeate health care.”
Ahead of assuming his new role on Aug. 22, Dr. Lafontaine has already contributed greatly at the CMA.
Since 2018, he has chaired the governance council for the Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ), which stewards and promotes the overall well-being and integrity of CMAJ, including editorial independence. He also led a CMA initiative to engage its members and broader stakeholders towards health systems change, focusing on Indigenous Health.
And in June 2022, the CMA established a Guiding Circle, a group of First Nations, Inuit and Métis individuals with relevant expertise who will collaborate with and advise the CMA on to improve the health outcomes of Indigenous peoples. Dr. Lafontaine will be one of three participating CMA representatives.
“The Guiding Circle is an opportunity to address the historic devaluation, and in many cases outright dismissal, of Indigenous Peoples’ voices regarding their own health care,” he said.
Dr. Lafontaine has received numerous accolades for his contributions to health care, including a spot on Canada’s Top 40 Under 40 list in 2021. He also received the CMA Award for Political Advocacy (formerly the Sir Charles Tupper Award) in 2019.