Jamaica-born paediatrician impacting lives in Canada
A Jamaica paediatrician has taken on a new role as equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) champion for the division of developmental paediatrics at the University of Toronto’s Department of Paediatrics.
Dr Sharon Smile is a clinical study investigator at the Bloorview Research Institute and a developmental paediatrician at the Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital in Toronto.
In her EDI role, she is supporting allyship and awareness, especially around anti-black racism and anti-racism, to move “towards a common humanity where we don’t have to be talking about race, sexuality, culture and a definer for a person but that opportunities are going to be equal around for everyone because that’s the only way that we’re going to make the world a better place”.
Global protests against the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer on May 25, provided the leadership team with, “a platform to speak openly about our journey and our voices are being heard”.
Dr Smile is hoping that the change will go further.
“And then what we should do is pivot on that to make sure that we make substantial changes within institutions, structures, organisations, within our home, within our justice system, and continue that movement,” she said.
Regarding the impact of racism on a child’s development and mental health, Dr Smile said this happens throughout their lifespan, from childhood through adolescence to adulthood.
As someone who grew up in Jamaica, Dr Smile said the type of racism in Canada is new to her because, while there is colourism and classism in her homeland, the racism that is in the western world was foreign to her.
She noted that in Canada black children are 40 per cent more likely to be investigated for child welfare services and, in 2011, the Toronto District School Board identified that black kids are two times more likely to drop out of school as compared to their white counterparts.
“What drives that is that black kids feel excluded or targeted or they are stressed. So we see a lot of black kids in the child welfare services as well as they are over-represented in the corrective institutions as well. This significantly impacts their mental health.”
Dr Smile said there is the chronic racial challenge that kids experience from childhood into adolescence and it may not be labelled in childhood as being racism “because it is so embedded in our day-to-day lived experience that we may not separate it from other experiences.”
This affects the self-esteem of children and they grapple with anxiety, depression and the stigma around mental health illness.
The paediatrician noted that racism also has an impact on access to healthcare and that there are health inequities that exist in the system for kids or adults who are identified as black, indigenous or people of colour.
Her advice to parents who want to talk to their children about racism is that they should start with themselves first.
“You have to equip yourself as an adult with the knowledge, the language, and the understanding of history to then impart that knowledge to your child.”
For younger kids, she recommends using books talking about racism, differences, and acceptance, and use them as a platform to have those discussions.
She urged parents to know what their children are being taught in school and to review it.