Dr. Michael Dan urges grads to close the gap for Canada’s Indigenous peoples

On the eve of National Aboriginal Day, Toronto neurologist Dr. Michael Dan visited York University to receive an honorary doctor of laws in recognition of his work in social innovation, as a humanitarian, and for his role as a philanthropist. The degree was awarded to Dan during the convocation ceremony the Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies on June 20.

Toronto physician Michael Dan speaks to convocation

Dan is a leading philanthropist, a supporter of human rights, peace in the Middle East, First Nations initiatives and local charities. His career spans the fields of neurosurgery, biotechnology, and hydroelectric power. It was his work with Canada’s First Nations communities that informed the theme of his convocation address. He began by speaking about the Indigenous concept of the importance of the convocation ceremony, and of ceremonies in general.

“One of the most important teachings I have received from Indigenous people is that everything is a ceremony. How we greet each new day is a ceremony. How we address one another in a public space is a ceremony. How we care for and relate to the natural world is a ceremony. In Settler society, we often overlook the importance of ceremony, but not today,” said Dan. “Today is all about ceremony.”

Graduating from university adds anywhere from four to seven years to a person’s lifespan, said Dan, because by virtue of an education, people are better informed and more able to make better health choices over the course of their lives. He asked those present to contrast that advantage with the fact that many in Canadian society are excluded from higher education.

Above: From left, Chancellor Greg Sorbara, Dr. Michael Dan, and York President and Vice-Chancellor Mamdouh Shoukri

“Historically, Indigenous people in Canada have had some of the worst educational experiences imaginable. The system of residential schools, invented by Settlers and imposed on them by Settlers, lasted from 1830 to 1996,” said Dan, noting that even today, Indigenous people in Canada, whether living in urban-based or remote reserves, don’t have the same, rich educational experiences and opportunities as other Canadians.

“There’s paradox at the heart of the greatest educational system in the world: an entire segment of society continues to be left behind, much to everyone’s detriment,” he said, noting that these problems don’t get better by themselves. Ironically, in December of 2016, the Parliamentary Budget Officer released a report that inequities in First Nations education remain, even after accounting for the new investments in Budget 2016.

No university education means less opportunity to improve social status, and no extra four to seven years of life. Not surprisingly, Dan noted, the average lifespan of First Nations in Canada is about seven years shorter than the national average. And among the Inuit, the difference is more like 15 years, he said.

He told grads that First Nations children end up in foster care at a rate that is 12 times that for non-Indigenous children and about 25 per cent of the federal prison population is Indigenous. “As Pam Palmeter [a Mi’kmaq lawyer, professor, activist and politician]likes to point out, it costs $100,000 per year to keep someone in prison. That’s roughly the same cost as an undergraduate degree. Today, a typical First Nations youth is more likely to end up in jail than to graduate from high school, let alone attend university.”

When Indigenous people are given the chance to attend university, said Dan, they graduate and find jobs just like everybody else—perhaps even at a higher rate than everybody else. They move back to their communities as teachers, nurses, doctors, and as entrepreneurs, and create economic activity on their reserves.

“It might take another seven generations to reverse the effects of colonization and residential schools, but we have to begin today,” said Dan. “Which means that it will be up to you — the graduating class of 2017 — to do your share of the heavy lifting. So consider this your last homework assignment. Your professors will check on you in 50 years, when Canada celebrates its bicentennial, to see if you’ve closed the social and economic gaps between Indigenous peoples and Settler Canadians. When the educational opportunities, and socioeconomic outcomes, are the same for both groups, then we will have achieved reconciliation.”

Dan closed his convocation address by exploring an Indigenous teaching: the meaning of the phrase “all my relations.”

“In the Indigenous worldview, all the two-legged ones are connected to each other, as well as to the natural world: to animals, plants, mother earth, the four waters, and to the sky above us, including the spirit world—where our life’s journey begins and ends,” said Dan. “All of my relations goes on forever, and we are all on this journey together, connected now by ceremony.

“Let us all travel the river of life together, and make the most of those extra four to seven years, building an even stronger, more equitable, and more inclusive Canada,” said Dan.

A former assistant professor of neurosurgery, Dan left medicine to become chief executive officer of Novopharm Biotech, a division of Novopharm Ltd, the generic drug company started by his father, Leslie. He is currently president of both Regulus Investments Inc. and Gemini Power Corp., a hydroelectric company that builds partnerships with First Nations communities. In 2002, he founded the Paloma Foundation to assist charities in the GTA. Dan is the recipient of many accolades including the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal, the Order of Ontario, the Order of St. John, and the Order of Canada.