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Dr. Rob Johnson, Canada's first Mi'kmaq physician

Posted by Colin Hodd on June 19, 2018 in News
Dr. Robert Johnson (Bobbi Carpino)
Dr. Robert Johnson (Bobbi Carpino)

When Robert Johnson walked across Dalhousie’s convocation stage in 1998 to receive his medical degree, he was the first Mi’kmaq person to receive this degree from Dal. Johnson was barely 23 at the time, having enrolled in the medical school at the age of 18.

“I was a bit young. I found out I was accepted to medical school the day I graduated from undergrad. I remember the associate dean saying, ‘Would you like to take a year off?’,” recalls Dr. Johnson. “But it never really crossed my mind that maybe I was a bit too young to become a physician. They offered to hold my spot but I knew very well what my path would be.”

That certainty about his path in life had its roots in the Millbrook First Nation, where young Robert took an accelerated course of study. In fifth grade, he was completing a project on the layers and functions of the skin when something clicked.

“I would do a project on human anatomy every year after that,” he says. “It gave me drive growing up, and a goal going through school. I knew very well what I wanted to do.”

The desire to make it to medical school came from that early inspiration in anatomy, but the discipline to work at it came from sport. Johnson played provincial Triple A Midget hockey as a forward. Even now, with a mature medical practice, he sees the impact of sport on his professional life.

“Sport helped me learn how to be disciplined and contribute to a team, which has carried over into my professional life and my family life,” says Dr. Johnson, father of three. “I’m also a believer that the mind works best when you have a certain level of physical fitness. I like to think I’ve passed that on to my children, that the proper balance is vital to success and happiness in life. My son is 16 and he’s excelling in sport but I think because of that he’s also excelling in school.”

Despite the formative role hockey played in his life, it was certainty about his path that led the young Johnson to put aside competitive hockey to devote himself to his studies. His older cousin, Bob Gloade, now chief of the Millbrook First Nation where they both grew up, remembers that early determination.

“I remember I said, ‘Why don’t you keep pushing on? Because you could continue to play,’ and Rob said, ‘No, I have to re-evaluate and set my priorities and focus on what’s realistic,’” recalls Chief Gloade. “For someone 17 years old, to know what he wanted and what he was committed to, was significant. He is respected in the community for his ability to do that and for his accomplishments.”

His dedication to medicine paid off. Not only did he receive his MD in 1998, he received a National Aboriginal Achievement Award two years earlier.

“That’s the highest First Nations honour in Canada, and I was a bit blown away, as you can imagine a young person would be, sitting down with Elijah Harper,” recalls Dr. Johnson of the ceremony in Ottawa. “There was Grand Chief Phil Fontaine. There was Tom Jackson and Maria Campbell. An Olympic gold medalist, Alwyn Morris. All receiving the same award as me. It was a little overwhelming.”

After graduating from Dalhousie, Dr. Johnson embarked on residency training in family medicine at the University of British Columbia (Prince George), curious to see a different part of Canada. He returned to Nova Scotia for a time, practising emergency medicine at the Dartmouth General Hospital, then returned to the West Coast to pursue studies in emergency medicine and anesthesiology at UBC. Still, Chief Gloade sees the impact that successful members of the First Nations community can have on their youth.

“His success shows our community—not only my community but all the Mi’kmaq communities in our territory—you can accomplish anything you want to if you have dedication,” Chief Gloade says. “We’ve had other people pursue careers in the medical field because he’d done it… He’s cleared the path for other people to accomplish their goals and aspirations.”

Dr. Johnson understands the importance of his achievements to Indigenous communities but sees his career path and the example he sets for his family and his students as his primary mentoring role.

“When I was in Nova Scotia I would do talks on the First Nation, about life in general. A little about medicine, but it was more about going to school and persisting,” says Dr. Johnson. “I met my wife, who is a Carrier-Tsilhqot’in First Nation woman and a gynecologist, soon after coming to B.C. I knew very well that my mentoring would have to be with our three children, number one. Every adult’s ultimate goal should be to guide your children on the right path. Be it in physical and mental health, education, or whatever facet of life. Properly guided children will succeed in their own way, and then guide others.”

Dr. Johnson takes pride in providing his medical services to northern and rural communities, in particular those areas with large Indigenous populations—such as Yellowknife and Duncan, where he does regular locum work.

“The care I give in my two areas of practice—emergency medicine and anesthesia—requires caregivers to respect the vulnerable position that any patient is in and pay extra attention to those who are not as privileged...often the First Nations people,” he says. “Growing up on in a First Nation community and practicing medicine are both tremendous honours. That combination molded me into a physician who gives the best possible care to each individual, while highly respecting the story behind them. I know first-hand what obstacles the Indigenous peoples have been born into… I was there, and to some extent I always will be.”