York honours a champion of public health

Dr. Sheela Basrur knew from a very early age that she wanted to help people. That desire and commitment to the public good led her on a life journey into the international spotlight when she became the face of public health in Canada during the 2003 SARS crisis.

When the mysterious and devastating illness known as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) choked the life from so many, it was Basrur’s calm, reassuring demeanor, commitment to using the law to enforce quarantines, and her ability to communicate to the public what was happening in the crisis, that made her a lifeline to a city, province and country devastated by the illness. SARS paralyzed the global community and thrust Toronto into an unenviable position of being North America’s SARS capital.

Right: Sheela Basrur

On Saturday, Oct. 20, York University awarded Basrur an honorary doctor of laws degree during Fall Convocation ceremonies for her role as the first medical officer of health for the amalgamated City of Toronto and as champion of public health. That calm demeanor and control, for which she had become so famous, cracked a bit as she stepped to the podium to address graduands of the Faculty of Graduate Studies, Faculty of Health, Faculty of Environmental Studies, and Faculty of Science & Engineering. In her convocation address, she talked about how she came into the field of public health and offered her personal views on how the law is central to the practice of public health.

But it was first, as a daughter addressing her parents that Basrur’s voice shook; as she thanked them for their unselfish support, guidance and encouragement which she says allowed her to take the essential steps into public service. "They raised me to see formal education as the pathway to success in life and in particular, as a pathway to independence, especially for a woman. They encouraged me to pursue my dreams," said Basrur.

"As a child I knew that I wanted to help people, I did not quite know how, but this translated into a lifelong passion for public service following a trip to India and Nepal now 25 years ago. In a nutshell, what I saw were so many missed opportunities for prevention that were due to a host of systemic problems that were so ingrained in the situations there, they were caused by social conditions that perpetuated poverty and treated women like second class citizens. They were caused by a lack of sanitation and clean drinking water and a lack of a public health system."

Basrur saw public health as the best way to battle systemic problems. "I learned to go after the root causes and root solutions associated with those problems rather than taking a one by one approach," said Basrur. She became known for her ability to address systemic problems and her unique understanding of issues facing Toronto’s diverse communities, particularly those of immigrants and refugees. Basrur was instrumental in the city’s banning of non-essential "cosmetic" pesticides and improving public health standards in Toronto’s restaurants.

She said she came to realize the fundamental importance of law to the practice of public health and learned how to use the law as a tool to protect larger populations from health threats including establishing a ban on smoking in public places and the prevention of the spread of diseases such as SARS and to control those with multi-drug resistant tuberculosis who may resist treatment and continue to expose others.

"There are opportunities to use the law to precautionary measures, and it sets out the parameters and steps to be taken by local officials in a public health crisis such as SARS," said Basrur. "Smoke free laws have provided crucial protection to the rights of the majority to smoke free environments. Now, If you want to see someone smoking in a bar, you now have to go the movies."

Public health and the law is one of the most fascinating areas that Basrur says she has ever encountered in her career because it requires a balance between private and public rights. "In fact, I secretly wish that I could go back to school and study law full time," she said. "But now, thanks to this honour from York University, I can come out of the closet and say that I too am an honorary lawyer.

"Congratulations to the graduates and to your families. I would like to offer just one set of words of wisdom given to me by a cherished colleague who shared her motto with me. She said, ‘the only difference between an ordeal and an adventure is your attitude’ and that to me has made a world of difference when times have been tough," said Basrur.

To see archived Web casts of the October 2007 convocation ceremonies, visit the Convocation at York Web site.