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Indigenous Surgery Educator Jason Pennington

Jason Pennington
Jason Pennington

Jason Pennington, a member of the Huron-Wendat nation, came to the University of Toronto initially to study aerospace engineering. Facilitated by Dianne Longboat, he made the transition to Arts & Science, completing a Master’s in Botany before entering Medicine in 1996 and the General Surgery residency program in 2000. He was active at First Nation’s House (Aboriginal Student Support and Services @ U of T) and tutored at several Aboriginal organizations during these formative years. After 2 years as a Clinical Associate at Toronto Western and locum tenens in Timmins and Kapuskasing, he began his General Surgery practice at The Scarborough Hospital with a focus in colorectal surgery.

Jason is an active advocate for Indigenous Health issues at the Medial School. Lisa Richardson, an Indigenous internist at Toronto Western and Jason are curricular leads in Indigenous Health Education. They are based in the Office of Indigenous Medical Education at the Medical Sciences Building. The Office is run by Rochelle Allan, the Indigenous Peoples’ Undergraduate Medical Education Program Coordinator. They are primarily tasked with introducing Indigenous health issues and concepts into the medical school curriculum. Other roles include mentorship, the overseeing the Indigenous applicant pathway, supporting the resilience of Indigenous medical students, and faculty development. For example, Jason and Lisa were recently on the organizing committee for the Faculty of Medicine’s Inaugural Indigenous Health Conference focused on Health Inequities. They have also developed a webinar for faculty tutors on interacting with Indigenous students and cultural safety for indigenous patients. Along with OHPSA, the office participates in a summer mentorship program that brings Aboriginal and Black high school students to the university. The students stay for 4 weeks on the campus, participating in lectures and labs, job shadowing and doing a small health-research project.

Jason’s role models encompass the values of clinical excellence, research, leadership, education and advocacy. They include Janet Smylie, an Indigenous researcher and Director of Well Living House, Evan Adams, Aboriginal actor and Deputy Minister of Health in British Columbia, and Barrie Lavallee, a physician and advocate in Winnipeg. Jason actively strives to emulate these mentors through many activities. Advocacy is central to his role as the Regional Aboriginal Cancer Lead at the Central East LIHN. He has also participated in research with Timothy Jackson and Ori Rotstein; they have studied the inequity of access to bariatric surgery, and with Linda Wright investigating the role of mentorship in heart transplantation. More remotely, under the tutelage of Paul Grieg and Mark Cattral, he has studied the aetiology of cirrhosis as a predictor of diabetes after liver transplantation.

Some Indigenous issues such as water safety conditions, housing, and abuses are well-known via the media. Important Indigenous concepts are less known: the holistic view of medicine, the world and that of cultural safety - a concept derived from a Mauri nurse (Ramsden I. (1990) Cultural Safety. New Zealand Nursing Journal 83 (December): 18-19). Lisa Richardson and Jason have introduced this to the medical curriculum including an innovative elective focused on self-reflection around experiences with the urban Indigenous Community and Culture. At the time of my interview, there were 8 students clustered outside Jason’s office. They were working on a Community Based Scholarship (CBS) project, coordinated by Rochelle and Lisa.

“In general, Western governments approach the problems faced by the Indigenous community with well-meant but unhelpful interventions. The underlying problems are related to a lack of understanding and respect for local autonomy. This goes back to the treaties that were signed many years ago. The belief then was that we would go forward side by side in our canoes and boats; we would respect each other’s needs, rights and views. Since then, many violations have occurred. There is a tendency to underestimate or dismiss Indigenous knowledge and overemphasize what can be done for the indigenous people. It leads to a paternalistic superimposition of non-Indigenous culture, deepening the lack of autonomy.”

“There are now regular enrolments in an Indigenous student application pathway to medical school. The University accepts 2-3 Indigenous medical students each year, still 1% or less of the class. There was one point in medical school when I was the only identified Aboriginal medical student in the four years of the medical school. The first cohort on the pathway is graduating 2 students this year. Both were accepted into residency programs here at the University of Toronto. Our Indigenous students have a lot of energy and have generally been quite active in promoting both their culture and other talents via multiple media. The resiliency of these young trainees is paramount to our office to ensure the future health of our communities and advancement of medicine overall.”

Jason is married to Winnie, a mechanical automotive engineer. They have 3 children, Devon, age 7, and twins Joshua and Hana, age 4. To “what are you reading these days?” Jason answers “Goodnight Moon!”. He rarely gets a chance to golf and is more likely to be found at t-ball with his children.


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