By Zachary Kuehner
THE first time I heard the term “white settler” used in earnest was in 2014, the year scholars of political correctness often point to as the beginning of a collective progressive psychosis on college campuses. I was sitting in my girlfriend’s living room learning about the ins and outs of midwifery from her new roommate. The young woman had moved to Thunder Bay to complete a practicum and was discussing the trickier navigations of her enlightened education.
She was studying at Ryerson University (which, for those unaware, is southern Ontario’s mecca for social justice advocacy) and recounted an incident by which she had had to undergo mediation with a classmate for failing to properly acknowledge disparities in their privilege. With my left eyebrow already climbing toward my receding hairline, she described how white students were often asked to self-identify as “white settlers” at the beginning of seminars, an ode to their inherited legacy of colonial domination.
The second time was more than three years later during my final weeks of medical school at NOSM.
The Northern Ontario School of Medicine is one of Thunder Bay’s most admired (and admirable) institutions, producing high-quality doctors with the skills to serve their diverse northern communities. Central to the curriculum is an emphasis on the health and cultural wellbeing of northern Ontario’s Indigenous population, exemplified by early introduction to Indigenous communities and ongoing exposure to various elements of cultural competency training.
Some of this is appropriate and responsive to the needs of a community with complicated health and social issues. Some of it, however, is something quite different.
In preparation for a final series of didactic learning sessions, we were assigned a variety of readings, one of which asked — at least implicitly — that we don the label of “white settler.” The ‘reading’ was actually an episode of White Coat Black Art, a popular CBC podcast hosted by emergency physician Dr. Brian Goldman. Entitled, ’I’m a white settler: Why that matters in health care,’ the episode included as guests three members of an Indigenous “cultural safety” training group, which delivers seminars to health care professionals across the country. The most striking thing about these workshops is the request — nay, the demand — that participants identify themselves by their racial heritage.
Goldman’s guests took the liberty of demonstrating for their host what this identification process looks like, each identifying by their respective Indigenous ‘nation’ in a seemingly benign icebreaker. But, as they explained, the exercise is not about emphasizing the diversity in the room, but about identifying privilege. Tellingly, the white members attending these workshops are ‘asked’ to identify, not just as white, but as “white settlers.” It does not seem to matter whether one’s family immigrated to Canada two minutes ago or 200 years ago. We all enjoy the fruits of a legacy of oppression and are thus just as culpable as Columbus or Cartier or Macdonald.
It never seems to register with those making demands of this kind that these games only work insofar as the tormenter they seek to chastise goes along with the charade. Indeed, they are counting on the empathy (or at least guilt) of their oppressors (which ought to lead one to question how dedicated an oppressor they really are).
Despite what sounded like a touch of incredulity in Dr. Goldman’s voice, he acquiesced and identified himself at the beginning of the episode according to their wishes. “I’m Dr. Brian Goldman, and . . . I’m a white settler.”
Not content with the mere co-operation of their host, the guests made sure to remind listeners that not all physicians are as accommodating. They recounted an incident whereby an older white doctor had refused to refer to himself in the manner his lecturers had instructed, ultimately choosing to leave the workshop rather than prostrate himself. To these women, this was not an act of quiet dignity, but an unconscionable display of colonialist arrogance.
“A complaint went right up to the top because this doctor was being asked to identify as a white man, and he didn't like that. So he used his white privilege to create a lot of problems for us,” they said. Dr. Goldman had no real retort. My guess is that he understood the political cost of dissent.
The fact that this podcast was “assigned reading” in a medical school might surprise some, but it is just a manifestation of a larger social current that sees group identity as paramount. Where medicine is concerned, there now exists a significant gap between those physicians comfortable self-flagellating for deeds they did not commit (the kind of physician NOSM seems hellbent on producing), and those for whom countless demands to check various kinds of privilege represent a slippery slope toward a sinister kind of identity politics.
Incidentally, last year the Ontario Medical Association membership voted decisively (105-65) not to endorse the practice of land acknowledgements prior to its meetings. Land acknowledgements are now commonplace in Canada and involve the practice of identifying the tribal lands upon which a meeting or conference is taking place as a gesture of respect and (more importantly) repentance. The practice is controversial, not least because it often amounts to tokenism.
Regardless of the motivations of its members, the OMA leadership immediately succumbed to pressure from the Nishnawbe Aski Nation to apologize. Its new president, Dr. Nadia Alam (who made her name as the strident founder of the Concerned Doctors of Ontario group which criticized the OMA for failing to represent its members) offered a tepid defence of her colleagues. She encourged the vote’s frustrated losers to “look at (their colleagues) and just ask why” — as though voting ‘no’ unveiled some incomprehensible pathology.
The message was clear: progressive posturing is now the default position.
In the end, I have no way of seeing into the mind of a stubborn old doctor who boycotts a cultural safety seminar. And I have no way of knowing what is truly in the hearts of those physicians who resisted a benign gesture to an historically dispossessed minority group (though it was suggested that fear of tokenism was indeed a factor). But I know the way forward cannot be to separate (and segregate) ourselves according to the colour of our skin.
At its best, medicine is a profession that sees patients as individuals and we lose this perspective at our peril. Encouraging new physicians to place race at the centre of the conversation and to atone publicly for the sins of their ancestors (or worse, someone else’s ancestors) risks exposing medicine to the same toxic identity politicking already affecting the humanities.
Medical schools like NOSM would do well to tread carefully in these areas. Otherwise they risk producing a generation of physicians which, while not all white, will certainly have settled for a view of the world that would make past champions of racial equality roll over in their graves.
After four years at the Northern Ontario School of Medicine in Thunder Bay, Zach Kuehner is completing his residency in Newfoundland.