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Chandrakant Shah, public health leader and equity champion, receives honorary degree

Physician Chandrakant Shah had not been in Canada very long when he volunteered to be a clinician for Indigenous communities near Sioux Lookout in northwestern Ontario.

The experience made a strong impression on Shah, who has dedicated himself ever since to helping his medical colleagues understand the impact of social factors such as income and education – and, importantly, historical trauma – on the health of Indigenous Peoples.

Today, in recognition of his outstanding service as a leader in public health education in Canada, a tireless advocate for Indigenous Peoples and a champion of equity and inclusion, Shah received a Doctor of Science, honoris causa, from the University of Toronto, where he is a professor emeritus at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health.

In his speech to the Class of 2021, Shah encouraged graduating students to pursue a common goal: improve the health and well-being of humanity.

“The COVID crisis has exposed our strengths and vulnerabilities, not only in our communities but also in our nation and around the world,” Shah said. “Our strength lies in our oneness – that is, sharing and caring for our fellow humans.”

Shah immigrated to Canada in 1965 after receiving medical training in India, the U.K. and the U.S. He recalls that Canada, and the medical profession here, were not especially welcoming to immigrants of colour. In Ontario, he was advised he would never get a license to practise medicine. “I faced a significant amount of discrimination in my professional life,” he told the Canadian Race Relations Foundation for its sesquicentennial project, 150 Stories. He moved to British Columbia for work, but returned to Ontario in 1972 after he was offered a professorship in U of T’s department of preventive medicine and biostatistics.

After his volunteer role in northern Ontario ended, in 1988, Shah became involved with Indigenous health care in Toronto. He joined Anishnawbe Health Toronto as a staff physician, where his patients were primarily members of the city’s Indigenous community. (While Shah practised Western medicine, he could also refer patients to a traditional healer down the hall.)

As an educator, Shah grew concerned about the lack of Indigenous content in Ontario’s health sciences curriculum. In the late 2000s, he helped develop a new training module and recruited 35 Indigenous instructors to deliver it at colleges and universities across the province. He hopes the program, which launched in 2010, will lead to better – and fairer – health care for Indigenous Peoples. “I want [medical] students to have empathy for their patients, no matter who they are,” he told University of Toronto Magazine.

Shah’s commitment to Indigenous Peoples extends beyond health care. He remembers being troubled that Canada’s citizenship exam contained almost nothing about the country’s treatment of Indigenous Peoples. “There was no mention of the treaties that were signed, about the forced process of assimilation through the residential school system…,” Shah said in his contribution to 150 Stories. He singlehandedly launched a letter-writing campaign urging changes, which eventually resulted in the Canadian government updating the citizenship guide and exam, giving millions of new Canadians a better understanding of the country’s history.

A practising physician and board member of Anishnawbe Health Foundation, Shah has received many awards for his public health expertise and advocacy on behalf of Indigenous Peoples over the course of his career. He is a recipient of a Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal and the Order of Ontario. In 2007, he was named an Outstanding Physician of Ontario for coming closest to meeting society’s vision of an “ideal physician.” His textbook, Public Health and Preventive Medicine in Canada, is widely used by students across health disciplines.

Shah urged graduating students to champion social justice and equity in all they do.

“Our success,” he says, “depends on practising ‘five Cs.’ They are: compassion, commitment, courage, communication and connectivity… No one ‘C’ is enough.”