Thirty years ago, Dr. Jean-Joseph Condé was the only Black physician in Val D’Or. Now, he says, the future of care in rural Quebec may depend on doctors like him.
As part of Black History Month, we asked Dr. Condé, who joined the CMA Board of Directors in August, to reflect on his journey as a Black physician, and how diversity in medicine can help save a health system in crisis.
February is Black History Month. How would you describe diversity in the medical profession in Quebec?
I think diversity is improving, both in the medical profession and in medical schools. Forty years ago, I was the only Black medical student in a class of 360. But things are starting to change. In 2020, 1.5 to 3% of students at the Université de Montréal were Black, as well as 26 students out of 259 at the University of Toronto. Many schools now have initiatives in place to make medical programs more accessible to Black people.
Did any Black physicians influence your career choice?
Yes. There weren’t many, but there were some. My parents came from a small town in Haiti; the turning point for me was meeting their friend who had immigrated to Quebec in the 1960s and who was a doctor at CHU Sainte-Justine. He was my inspiration and role model when I was a young Black student.
Why did you decide to settle in Val-d’Or, in rural Quebec?
I started working in Val-d’Or over 30 years ago. I grew up in Montreal, but an internship brought me to the Abitibi region. I was one of four young medical graduates who decided to set up practice in a rural community. We wanted to take on the challenges of a multi-specialty practice (emergency, hospitalization, obstetrics, intensive care, etc.). And, of course, there was also the appeal of the great outdoors. Plus, I had met warm, friendly people in Val-d’Or, which convinced me to move there.
You were the only Black physician in the community at the time. What was that like?
There were a few isolated incidents, but all Black people experience racism at some point in their lives. I’ve received a warm welcome from patients, colleagues and the community. As the only Black physician in a small community, though, I do feel like I need to be twice as careful and conscientious — that there isn’t room for error. It’s clear that being a Black doctor in a small community puts extra pressure on my shoulders.
How were you treated by other physicians?
After only two years in Val-d’Or, I was elected president of the Medical Staff Association of the Hôpital de Val-d’Or, which was important for me as a young practitioner and as a Black physician in a white environment. After three years, I was elected by my peers as a regional representative on the board of the FMOQ (Federation of General Practitioners of Quebec). My appointment at the Canadian Medical Protective Association, first as a board member, then as the president, was another vote of confidence. These are significant signs of trust and I appreciated them greatly, especially since they came from a 100% white community of my peers.
Is rural Quebec any more diverse since you first started practice in Val-d’Or?
When I first came here, the doctor was an important player in the health care system, whether they were Black or from any background. I’ve found that today, Black physicians and immigrant physicians in general are not only important players in the system, but also often the backbone of it, especially in remote areas, like Senneterre, northeast of Val-d’Or.
Can you tell us more about Senneterre?
It’s a small town and its health care centre was once run by four Quebec doctors. They’ve since retired and three physicians from the West Indies and Africa now provide health care. The town’s only pharmacy is also run by a pharmacist of African descent. This shows that Black physicians and health professionals are now essential to the health care system. Without them, 6,000 people would be without access to community care.
Why is it significant to see so many Black physicians in one town?
People everywhere are growing older and health care needs are increasing. Add to that the number of doctors retiring and the ever-decreasing number of young graduates who turn to family medicine, and you get a shortage of family doctors. Diversity plays an important role in solving the health care crisis. The presence of Black physicians improves not only the quality of care for Black people, but also access to care for the greater population.
What about international medical graduates?
They are essential to the health care system. We can see it in Ontario, where 26% of physicians are international graduates, and in Saskatchewan, where they make up about 50%. Quebec is only at about 9%, but we’re catching up.
How do we ensure we have continued diversity in the medical profession?
Universities and all 17 medical schools in Canada must implement action plans to make the health care field more accessible to people of diverse backgrounds. Only then will we have a medical profession that’s truly representative of our society.
As the CMA's new Quebec board representative, what do you hope to accomplish?
The CMA has a very ambitious strategic plan, which aims to meet the needs of the population and health professionals. I hope I can enrich discussions by bringing my own diverse opinions to the table.