Dr. Jason Pennington was honoured as co-winner of the Thomas Dignan Indigenous Health Award for establishing the Office of Indigenous Medical Education at the University of Toronto’s (U of T) medical school, and promoting Indigenous health within the curriculum.
When Dr. Jason Pennington walked into the Scarborough and Rouge Hospital’s (SRH) General site for his first shift in 2007, he didn’t plan to transform medical education.
But over the next decade, he did just that. And this year on June 21, National Aboriginal Day, Dr. Pennington, a general surgeon of Huron-Wendat descent, was honoured as a co-winner of the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons’ Thomas Dignan Indigenous Health Award.
For Dr. Pennington, educating medical students and physicians about Indigenous health, culture, and knowledge is a passion and a calling.
“The health inequalities of Indigenous people are so great,” he explains. “And it won’t change until all medical schools, physicians, and health institutions take the time and effort to better understand Indigenous people and culture. This includes becoming more accepting of our traditions and practices. We need a renewed relationship based in truth, sharing and respect.”
Dr. Pennington grew up in the vicinity of his reserve, Wendake, which is just north of Quebec City. His mother was a nurse, and his grandfather had a wealth of traditional knowledge around making snowshoes, hunting, fishing, and trapping, and – as Dr. Pennington learned after his death – traditional medicine.
“My grandfather had a wealth of knowledge,” Dr. Pennington explains, “but he never spoke about it because, at the time, Indigenous healing practices and spirituality were considered taboo, it wasn’t so long since it had been illegal.”
With his co-winner, Dr. Lisa Richardson, he created the Office of Indigenous Medical Education at U of T, and is working to increase focus on Indigenous health within U of T’s medical school. The medical community has made strides in recognizing the importance of Indigenous health since Dr. Pennington attended medical school twenty years ago. Then, there was only one lecture on Indigenous health in the whole four years of the curriculum, and he was one of very few Indigenous medical students.
At U of T, Dr. Pennington and Dr. Lisa Richardson, have formalized an Indigenous Student Application Pathway, a parallel pathway for Indigenous students to apply for admission. Thanks to this initiative, the medical school now has Indigenous students in each year of the four-year program.
They also developed a more extensive and less didactic curriculum. One novel elective in Urban Indigenous Health sends Indigenous and non-Indigenous medical students into the city to learn what it’s like to be an Indigenous person in urban Toronto. Students meet with healers, attend powwows, participate in drumming circles and attend sweat ceremonies at various Indigenous organizations around the GTA. The medical students write a reflective piece and come away with an often transformative understanding of colonization, its impacts, and what their role should be as a health provider for Indigenous patients.
After medical school and surgical residencies, Dr. Pennington chose work in Scarborough because of the community’s cultural diversity – including a diverse Indigenous population. The Indigenous population in Scarborough, may not be as large or visible as other groups but it includes First Nations, Inuit, and Metis people from all across Turtle Island (North America).
Dr. Pennington is optimistic about improving Indigenous health care in Scarborough, at SRH and across the CE-LIHN. The old TSH Mission “to provide an outstanding care experience that meets the unique needs of each and every patient” really resonated with the general surgeon who feels that this is consistent with the Indigenous health concept of Cultural Safety.
“Cultural safety is applicable to all patients, and people, who are different to you,” he notes. “When you have insights into your personal biases and awareness of your patients’ culture and beliefs, you will have better interactions with your patients, which leads to better health care for everyone.”