We watch, horrified, recordings of the last few seconds of George Floyd’s life. We hear his last words– “I can’t breathe”. The symbolism of the white, uniformed figure whose knee is at this neck, unresponsive to his pleas, could not be more stark. For many, George Floyd is the most recent, most poignant example of a history of racial subjugation, mistreatment and killing that spans the past four centuries. For many, it’s a sad reminder that similar crimes and protests of five decades ago were not the final expression of that discontent. For us all, it forces a confrontation with the reality that the dream of Martin Luther King “that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character” has, sadly, not yet been realized.

Locally, we have been challenged by these events to consider what, if any, implications they have for each of us personally, and for our school. Many faculty and students have expressed very clearly their concerns, their discontent and have called for change. In the interest of exploring this further, I met recently with our student leadership and medical students. Those discussions were candid, sincere and highly illuminating. They expressed realities about the experience of Black medical students at Queen’s with clarity and openness. The tragic killing of George Floyd, it seems, has opened a discourse and raised to the surface issues and concerns that are not new, but not previously expressed as bluntly. It has also, it must be said, caused all of us to listen with greater sensitivity.

Out of those discussions, a number of themes and practical measures are being developed and advanced. I have since had opportunity discuss these with our current Dean Dr. Reznick and our incoming Dean Dr. Philpott who are both very supportive.

  • All medical schools have a responsibility for social accountability. The exact nature of the commitment, expressed in a Diversity Statement, is school specific and should reflect the regions served and values of the particular school. That statement should drive a variety of school activities, including curriculum, recruitment and admissions. In the light of recent events, it seems appropriate to re-assess our Diversity statement. Our Diversity and Equity Committee, chaired by Dr. Mala Joneja, will be charged to draft a renewed statement to be considered by our faculty council
  • Our curriculum should prepare our students to provide comprehensive care to patients of all ethnic and racial backgrounds. This should be reflected in both the content and delivery of the curriculum. Our Curriculum Committee will be charged with re-assessing both aspects through the lens of the Black population. It will also be asked to ensure that opportunities exist for open and constructive dialogue between students for discussion of difficult and contentious topics.
  • The Black population of Canada is under-represented in our medical school. This is despite the fact that our admissions processes are scrupulously unbiased with respect to racial considerations. In fact, I realized as we discussed this issue recently that it was impossible to even determine the racial make-up of our incoming class, simply because this information is in no way documented or considered. The under-representation of Black people is almost certainly a complex and multi-factorial issue. Our Admissions Committee will be tasked with giving consideration to what factors may be active and to consider how they might be addressed.
  • Very concerningly, and despite numerous (and I believe very sincere) efforts to address this over the past few years, our students report a lingering perception within the Black applicant community that Queen’s is an unwelcoming environment. This no doubt contributes to the under-representation issue and merits deep consideration at all levels.
  • It seems clear that the promotion of mentorship opportunities for our Black students and applicants would be of benefit and should be pursued actively, both within our schools, and through effective collaborations outside our school.

None of this will occur if efforts are restricted only to a vocal minority who have themselves been the subject of racism in their lives and therefore need no convincing of its existence. It is rather for those of us in the “silent majority” of society who abhor racism but have not been its direct victims to take stock. We need to listen and, in those ways that are available to us, act.

Many will question why a murder in Minneapolis, tragic as it is, should influence the discourse and decisions at our small, somewhat secluded and seemingly tranquil medical school in Kingston, Ontario. I will admit to initially sharing that skepticism. I have come, through reflection on my own experiences with racism and through discussion with our students, to a different perspective. I would now say to those people who question these directions that no community in the western world can consider itself immune or unaffected by racism. I would say that injustice of any form diminishes and affects us all. I would say that we bear a collective obligation to the memory of George Floyd, to all the George Floyds of the past and to every person today afraid to jog alone through a park or be pulled over for a minor traffic violation. We owe it to them to take whatever action is in our power to take. We act for them but, in the end, we are acting for us all and for those who will follow.