Skip to Main Content
Follow us

Joint recipients of the Royal College’s Dr. Thomas Dignan Indigenous Health Award for 2017

“Jason and Lisa are passionately advocating for historic change at the University of Toronto’s medical school”

Left: Dr. Jason Pennington, FRCSC - Right: Dr. Lisa Richardson, FRCPC

“Without this program, without the mentorship, support and love of Lisa and Jason, I wouldn’t be in this place. Lisa and Jason really deserve this award. They are amazing people, physicians and leaders, and they really are an asset to the medical community in Canada.” — Ryan Giroux, a Métis graduate of the University of Toronto’s MD program


Dr. Jason Pennington, FRCSC

Huron-Wendat surgeon

  • Assistant Professor, Department of Surgery, Faculty of Medicine, University of Toronto
  • Curricular Co-Lead in Indigenous Health Education, Undergraduate Medical Education, University of Toronto

Dr. Lisa Richardson, FRCPC

Anishinaabe/European internist

  • Assistant Professor, Medicine, Faculty of Medicine, University of Toronto
  • Curricular Co-Lead in Indigenous Health Education, Undergraduate Medical Education, University of Toronto
Spirit Wind drummers

Spirit Wind sings at the opening of the University of Toronto’s Office of Indigenous Medical Education in 2014.

Decolonizing the academy

Two Indigenous doctors — Dr. Lisa Richardson, FRCPC, an Anishinaabe/European internist, and Dr. Jason Pennington, FRCSC, a Huron-Wendat surgeon — have won the Royal College’s 2017 Dr. Thomas Dignan Indigenous Health Award for their ongoing work to decolonize the academy at the University of Toronto (U of T)’s medical school. In 2014, they cofounded the Office of Indigenous Medical Education in the Faculty of Medicine and successfully advocated for the hiring of an Elder-in-Residence and an Indigenous Program Coordinator to assist with student learning and support. Together, they are increasing Indigenous student admissions, building a strong curriculum in Indigenous health, and nurturing a vibrant and resilient cohort of Canadian Indigenous physicians.

“It’s really quite an honor and very important to have been even nominated, but to win this award. We also love that the Royal College allowed us to receive this together. We applaud them for doing that, for recognizing that this is a special model in a collaborative leadership role. Indigenous Peoples in Canada still suffer from astonishing health inequities and disparities — we still have so much work to do to close that gap.”

— Dr. Jason Pennington and Dr. Lisa Richardson

Dr. Lisa Richardson, FRCPC

“One of the best parts of my job is working with Jason. I admire so many things about him. He has an unbelievable skill to deliver a very clear and strong message in a very thoughtful way. As a result of that, he’s very deeply respected by leaders and others, and it makes him an unbelievable change agent because of that ability to listen and reflect.”

— Dr. Lisa Richardson

Dr. Jason Pennington, FRCSC

“It’s been an honour to work with Lisa in this office. I’m always so impressed by her energy and commitment for Indigenous health. She’s never willing to compromise her ideals just for the sake of being able to say something was done. It always has to be done in the right way and from a good and safe space for our people.”

— Dr. Jason Pennington

Cat (Mark) Criger (Cayuga)

“The pair of them are an amazing set of mentors, mentors to students but also to any person out there walking to into an institution needing to make changes. I think if we were still running the old systems, there is no way they could escape being Elders, Wisdom Keepers, Traditional Teachers, Knowledge Keepers, because that’s what they are. They happen to wear different clothing now, they happen to walk in a bit of a different world, but that glow that surrounds them is still there.”

— Elder-in-Residence and nominator Cat (Mark) Criger
Photo: Mahmoud Sarouji

One innovative aspect of Dr. Pennington and Dr. Richardson’s Indigenous health curriculum is a lunch-and-learn series with Indigenous Elders who teach medical students about Indigenous intercultural issues and traditional concepts, such as Sacred Medicines and the Seven Grandfathers.

Recognizing and embedding traditional Indigenous teachings

When Dr. Pennington attended U of T’s medical school from 1996 to 2000, there was only one lecture on Indigenous health in the whole four years of the curriculum. “It was taken from a very westernized version of public health and was quite paternalistic,” he said.

Twenty-years later, his and Dr. Richardson’s new curriculum, which includes a lunch-and-learn series with Elders, is making waves throughout the whole program, embedding the Indigenous concepts of mind, body and spirit into all four years.

“It’s great that we have an Elder for the Faculty of Medicine,” said fourth-year medical student Ryan Giroux. “This is an example of how Jason and Lisa have advocated for Indigenous spaces to exist within the faculty, which is one of the first steps in decolonizing medical education.”

The new curriculum sends medical students out in the community of Toronto to participate in drumming circles, meet with healers, go to powwows and take part in sweats at one of the Indigenous health access centres. Through the people they meet, the students see for themselves the impacts of residential schools, colonization and racism on the health inequities faced by Indigenous Peoples.

“I think that’s the real thing, to get away from didactic lectures,” said Dr. Pennington. “Because it’s easy for students to say ‘Yes, yes, I’ve heard of residential schools, yes, yes, I know about Sixties Scoop.’ But until they meet people who lived it and get these deep, visceral experiences, that’s when we really transform the students.”

Dr. Richardson addresses the audience during the Department of Medicine’s inaugural Summit for Women in Academic Medicine in March 2017. Equality rights of female physicians are among her research interests.

A community-based curriculum that’s more than just clinical

Dr. Richardson has organized a highly sought-after elective where students write self-reflective pieces after having spent several weeks visiting different Indigenous organizations in Toronto. (These organizations are all related to Indigenous health care and well-being, such as the Native Canadian Centre, and Native Child and Family Services.)

This elective has had a great impact on students. They come away with a very deep understanding of colonization and its impacts, and what their role should be as a health provider for Indigenous patients. Some have even gone on to publish their reflections. “I’m blown away by what they write,” said Dr. Richardson. “It’s very transformative.”

“Lisa’s CV is replete with teaching awards and she is a role model who represents excellence wrapped in warmth and compassion,” said psychiatry professor Dr. Mark Hanson, FRCPC, a former director of MD admissions. “She is able to leverage her great teaching talents to attract medical students and therefore advance better health care for Indigenous Peoples.”

Dr. Richardson and Rochelle Allan presented a poster about the Elective in Urban Aboriginal Health at the Canadian Conference on Medical Education.

Jason (Left), Cat (Middle), Lisa (right)

Members of the Office of Indigenous Medical Education include, from left, Dr. Jason Pennington, Cat (Mark) Criger, the Elder-in-Residence, and Rochelle Allan, the Indigenous Peoples’ Undergraduate Medical Education Program Coordinator.

Increasing Indigenous student admissions

Dr. Pennington remembers one year in the late nineties when he was the only identified Indigenous student at the entire medical school at U of T. He later became a member of the medical school’s admissions committee, working hard to represent the Indigenous voice and strongly advocate for transformative change.

In 2012, he worked with Dr. Richardson and Dr. Hanson, then associate dean and director of MD admissions, to formalize a special parallel pathway for Indigenous students to apply for admission into the school.

Thanks to this initiative, the number of Indigenous applications has increased and the medical school now has Indigenous students in every year. These are outstanding students who meet all of the same academic standards as their non-Indigenous counterparts. But there is an additional layer where a circle of community members, academics and other Indigenous students review and evaluate their applications.

“Much work still needs to be done — the numbers could still go up a lot more — but we are routinely admitting several Indigenous medical students every year into the program,” said Dr. Pennington.

“Dr. Pennington’s passionate and diligent work within the Indigenous Student Application Program has led to historical change at U of T,” said Dr. Hanson. “With its implementation, the medical school has, for the first time ever, Indigenous medical students in each year of the four-year program.”

Indigenous girls perform a traditional dance at the Dr. Peggy Hill Memorial Lecture, an annual lecture created and organized by Dr. Richardson and Dr. Pennington with the support of the University of Toronto’s Medical Alumni Association to raise awareness about Indigenous health and bring together members of the community.

A transformed medical school that is closing the gap on health inequities

Dr. Pennington and Dr. Richardson’s powerful advocacy year by year is making Indigenous health matter at the University of Toronto. Their model is enabling the medical school to begin to address the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s calls to action and close the gap in Indigenous health disparities.

“Jason and Lisa’s work and powerful advocacy is truly transforming medical education at the University of Toronto,” said U of T’s Dr. Moira Kapral, FRCPC, and Dr. Arno Kumagai, in their joint nomination letter. “This traditional institution has now created structural and systemic changes to its curriculum, has become a safer institution for Indigenous trainees and patients, and has committed to working toward reconciliation and health equity for Indigenous Peoples.”

Photos courtesy of University of Toronto