Alika Lafontaine BSc’02 is a tireless advocate for Indigenous health care equality in Canada. He has been recognized with the Canadian Medical Association’s Award for Young Leaders and the Sir Charles Tupper Award for Political Action, among many other honours. While he might admit the recognition is flattering, what really drives him is the responsibility he feels to make a difference.

Ted Quewezance can tell you first-hand about the plight his people have faced when it comes to engaging with Canada’s health care-system. The former chief of the Keeseekoose First Nation and Residential School survivor has been a vocal critic of Canada’s health care system and how it favours non-Indigenous Canadians over Indigenous Canadians.

Ted Quewezance, a former chief of Keeseekoose First Nation, near Kamsack, Saskatchewan has seen his community plunge into the depths of despair because of a health crisis. In 2016, there were 100 drug-related deaths. On February 27, 2016, there were four deaths on Cote First Nation alone. Photo by Don Hall
Ted Quewezance, a former chief of Keeseekoose First Nation, near Kamsack, Saskatchewan has seen his community plunge into the depths of despair because of a health crisis. In 2016, there were 100 drug-related deaths. On February 27, 2016, there were four deaths on Cote First Nation alone. Photo by Don Hall

In early 2016, Quewezance was one of the leaders of the Saulteaux Pelly Agency Chiefs Health Alliance (consisting of Keeseekoose, Cote and Key First Nations) that declared their communities in a major state of crisis. Located some 20 kilometres north of Kamsack, Saskatchewan, the three First Nations have been plagued by hundreds of deaths attributed to addictions, violence and health problems. In the year surrounding the crisis declaration, Quewezance said he was attending three or four funerals each week, one of which was his son’s.

“My concern is the human suffering and harm,” Quewezance says. “I see it every day in the deaths and theperpetual crisis in our communities.”

There are many across the country who are diligently working to right the health care inequities. One of Canada’s strongest Indigenous health advocates is University of Regina alumnus Alika Lafontaine BSc’02. Lafontaine, an Ojibwe-Cree anesthesiologist at Queen Elizabeth II Hospital in Grande Prairie, Alberta, says progress has occurred for Indigenous health care patients, but much more work remains to be done to achieve equality.

In summer 2018, Ian Musqua (left) and his friend Adrian Severight wait for a methadone clinic to open in Kamsack, Saskatchewan. As early as 2013, patients claimed a Kamsack doctor was over-prescribing opioids. The same doctor operated the methadone program, an opioid addiction treatment. In 2018, the doctor was charged with unprofessional conduct by the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Saskatchewan. He retired later that year. Photo by Mark Taylor
In summer 2018, Ian Musqua (left) and his friend Adrian Severight wait for a methadone clinic to open in Kamsack, Saskatchewan. As early as 2013, patients claimed a Kamsack doctor was over-prescribing opioids. The same doctor operated the methadone program, an opioid addiction treatment. In 2018, the doctor was charged with unprofessional conduct by the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Saskatchewan. He retired later that year. Photo by Mark Taylor

“A lot of the issues in Indigenous health actually aren’t unique, they are just magnified,” he explains. “The system is multi-level and fragmented. In general, stakeholders aren’t directly accountable to each other. This is much worse for Indigenous health.” Lafontaine works relentlessly with medical professionals, health care organizations, and Indigenous communities to drive change in funding and practices at the provincial and federal levels. Improvement, he says, is dependent on four pillars — clear communication, strong engagement, targeted intervention, and cultural transformation.

In 2013, Lafontaine found himself helping Saskatchewan First Nations figure out why their community members were so sick. He recognized the gap in safety, quality improvement and patient-centred care between Indigenous and non-Indigenous patients.

In response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s calls to action for health, the Indigenous Health Alliance was formed with a mission to eliminate the differences in quality of care between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians. As project chair, Lafontaine drafted and helped lead a national strategy representing more than 150 First Nations organizations and several national health agencies. The strategy was submitted to the federal government on behalf of First Nations to advance health transformation. Last fall, the federal government committed $68 million to the project and, with that money in place, Lafontaine proudly stepped back to ensure that implementation was led by First Nations.

“Creating change in systems means changing mindsets,” Lafontaine adds. “Patients, especially Indigenous patients, are feeling more and more that they have a voice, and that they can come out and talk and decision-makers will actually listen.”

Through story-telling, real patient encounters, and his own experience, Lafontaine lectures across Canada on how bias, discrimination, and racism affect patient care and why addressing these issues lies at the core of improving the health of First Nations, Métis, and Inuit peoples.

In addition to a busy anesthesia practice in Northern Alberta, Lafontaine serves leadership roles with the Alberta Health Services Indigenous health program and North Zone. He is also an associate clinical professor at the University of Alberta in the Department of Anesthesiology and Pain Medicine in the Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry. He is past-president of the Indigenous Physicians Association of Canada, chair of the governance council of the Canadian Medical Association Journal and a council member of the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada.

Lafontaine speaks at the 2017 Public Policy Forum Testimonial Dinner and Awards. He received the Emerging Leader Award. Photo courtesy of the Public Policy Forum
Lafontaine speaks at the 2017 Public Policy Forum Testimonial Dinner and Awards. He received the Emerging Leader Award. Photo courtesy of the Public Policy Forum

Earlier this year, Lafontaine received the Sir Charles Tupper Award for Political Action for demonstrating leadership, commitment, and dedication in advancing Canadian Medical Association goals and policies through grassroots advocacy. He was the recipient of the 2017 Emerging Leader Award at the 2017 Public Policy Forum Testimonial Dinner and Awards, an award presented by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Earlier this year, Lafontaine received the Sir Charles Tupper Award for Political Action for demonstrating leadership, commitment, and dedication in advancing Canadian Medical Association goals and policies through grassroots advocacy. He was the recipient of the 2017 Emerging Leader Award at the 2017 Public Policy Forum Testimonial Dinner and Awards, an award presented by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

He is the first Indigenous physician listed by Medical Post as one of Canada's 50 Most Powerful Doctors. In 2016, he won the Great Canadian Healthcare Debate at the National Health Leadership Conference organized by HealthCareCAN. In 2015, he was selected a recipient of the Canadian Medical Association’s Award for Young Leaders.

In 2008, during his anesthesia fellowship, Lafontaine became CBC’s “Canada’s Next Great Prime Minister.” He won the competition with a platform focused on reconciling the Treaty relationship between Canada’s Indigenous Peoples and other Canadians.

Lafontaine says of his advocacy, “It is very fulfilling. I’m working with patients, colleagues, and other professionals who are also trying to make a difference.” Photo by Randy Vanderveen
Lafontaine says of his advocacy, “It is very fulfilling. I’m working with patients, colleagues, and other professionals who are also trying to make a difference.” Photo by Randy Vanderveen

“The advocacy has been a natural evolution of growing up the way that I did and having the opportunities that I was given,” Lafontaine says. “Any Indigenous person who gets involved in the health field has the opportunity to have some sort of impact, partially because there are not a lot of us out there, partially because the need is so deep. It is very fulfilling. I’m working with patients, colleagues, and other professionals who are also trying to make a difference.”

Recognizing the importance of patients telling their stories, Lafontaine is developing a virtual platform for physicians, health systems, and Indigenous patients to understand each other’s perspectives and to openly tackle issues like discrimination and racism. The platform, SafeSpaces, was used in the Indigenous Health Alliance to capture patient experiences across Saskatchewan, Northern Manitoba, and Northern Ontario.

Lafontaine’s list of awards and accomplishments is anything but short. Not bad for someone who, in grade school, was labelled as developmentally delayed and consequently homeschooled.

Mike Walter MEd’06 was Lafontaine’s home room and physics teacher at Regina’s Winston Knoll Collegiate. Walter has been delighted to watch Lafontaine’s career flourish, but he is not surprised by his former student’s accomplishments. Photo by Trevor Hopkin
Mike Walter MEd’06 was Lafontaine’s home room and physics teacher at Regina’s Winston Knoll Collegiate. Walter has been delighted to watch Lafontaine’s career flourish, but he is not surprised by his former student’s accomplishments. Photo by Trevor Hopkin

Mike Walter MEd’06 was Lafontaine’s home room and physics teacher. Walter has been delighted to watch Lafontaine’s career flourish, but he is not surprised by his student’s accomplishments.

“It really was a unique story. Alika was two years younger than his classmates, yet he was more mature. He was strong academically and worked hard.”

Walter recalls young Lafontaine as being a well-rounded student — in his school work, music and sports.

“I’m incredibly proud to see how Alika has pursued his medical career and that he advocates for Indigenous health care in our country. He deeply cares about society. He’s positive, caring and dedicated to what he believes in.”

Walter, now deputy director, Instruction and School Operations at the Prairie Valley School Division, taught all five Lafontaine children. He credits Alika’s parents with giving their children a global perspective and strongly supporting their educational pursuits.

“Alika’s story is one of having a number of assets and pushing forward to make a difference,” Walter says.

Lafontaine is quick to credit the University of Regina for its role in helping to launch his career. Photo by Randy Vanderveen
Lafontaine is quick to credit the University of Regina for its role in helping to launch his career. Photo by Randy Vanderveen

At age 16, while studying at the University of Regina, Lafontaine became one of the youngest recipients of a prestigious undergraduate Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) research grant. He is also the youngest recipient of an Indspire award, which celebrates and encourages excellence in the Indigenous community.

Lafontaine is quick to credit the University of Regina for its role in helping to launch his career. “It was the right place for me to find myself academically,” he says. “Professionally, the building blocks were put in place at the University of Regina.”

Lafontaine recalls vividly the moment that forged his career path into medicine. “There was a professor, Nazih Noureldin — on the first quiz in chemistry, I received a 70. I was sitting at the back of the class. He came to me and said, ‘Is this the best that you can do?’ I asked why? He said, ‘You can do a lot better.’ ”

He recalls Noureldin “volun-telling” him to sit at the front of the class and credits him for providing motivation and increasing his confidence. They would develop a friendship and Lafontaine considers his former professor a lifelong mentor. He says he also thrived with the smaller classes where students got to know each other and professors showed a genuine interest.

“Our mom was definitely a driving force. She gave us a push, put wind in our sails to give us direction. Our parents raised us to believe in traditional ways, so culture is a central part of who we are.”

Lafontaine says his parents, Chris and Manusiu, had a significant impact on his career path as well. His upbringing combined his father’s Saulteaux-Cree culture and traditions with his mother’s Pacific Islander heritage.

“My mother was an immigrant and she understood the struggles of trying to make a living without higher education,” Lafontaine says. “She instilled the value of hard work and how school would take us places. She looked at what our family would need in the future and what each of us should do.”

Lafontaine’s father was a management consultant, while his mother managed their family musical group, a time he affectionately refers to as being part of a “boy band.” Growing up, he and his siblings formed a boy band, The 5th Generation. They performed pop, R&B covers, and original music. The family also facilitated workshops in areas such as strengthening family relationships and physical health.

One of Lafontaine’s brothers became a lawyer, another is a dentist and a third is an administrator in a health authority, while his sister completed a bachelor’s of science degree. Four of the five Lafontaine siblings are University of Regina alumni.

“Our mom was definitely a driving force. She gave us a push, put wind in our sails to give us direction. Our parents raised us to believe in traditional ways, so culture is a central part of who we are.”

Lafontaine originally had thoughts of pursuing cardiology or becoming a neurosurgeon. His wife dissuaded him from a career that would inhibit family life. His decision to become an anesthesiologist resulted from an opportunity to shadow a friend one night when a “code blue” occurred.

“He was able to take a room that was in chaos and calmly directed people what to do. I watched him help people sort through a very stressful situation and redirect their attention to what the patient needed. That was the kind of doctor I wanted to become.”

Lafontaine takes a selfie with his wife Thu Uyen and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at the 2017 Public Policy Forum Testimonial Dinner and Awards. Photo courtesy of the Public Policy Forum
Lafontaine takes a selfie with his wife Thu Uyen and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at the 2017 Public Policy Forum Testimonial Dinner and Awards. Photo courtesy of the Public Policy Forum

Lafontaine and his wife, Thu Uyen, a dentist, have four children — Meilea, 11, Tiger, 9, Melina, 7, and Kenji, 5. All four children are homeschooled and he takes an active role in their learning.

Despite his boy-band pedigree, these days his musical engagement doesn’t go beyond singing and playing the piano with his kids. Family time also includes biking, hiking, and being a “dance dad.”

Ted Quewezance served as executive director of the National Residential School Survivors’ Society and spoke publicly about the legacy of Residential Schools at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission proceedings. Photo by Don Hall
Ted Quewezance served as executive director of the National Residential School Survivors’ Society and spoke publicly about the legacy of Residential Schools at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission proceedings. Photo by Don Hall

Quewezance, who spoke publicly about the legacy of Residential Schools at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission proceeding, and served as executive director of the National Residential School Survivors’ Society, has high praise for Lafontaine.

“I have learned a lot from working with Alika and I am impressed with his commitment to educate and the patience to work towards changing the system. He is a good listener who is able to see two worlds. What makes him a great leader is how he creates space for our voice in his work.”

“Creating change in systems means changing mindsets,” Lafontaine adds. “Patients, especially Indigenous patients, are feeling more and more that they have a voice, and that they can come out and talk and decision-makers will actually listen.”

About the Author

David Olinger is principal of Write Stuff Communications, a full-service communications agency based in Grande Prairie, Alberta.