CHANDRAKANT SHAH has devoted his life
to a section of people few have time
for — the native Indian
“Ahimsa is not just refraining from killing animals, but it is harmony with the whole eco-sys-tem,” says Dr Chandrakant P Shah, Professor Emeritus of
Public Health, University of Toronto and an expert on the
health of aboriginal people.
He has been helping the First Nation’s people for years, and
believes that his beliefs as a practicing Jain coincide nicely with
those of the native people. “Our native people may not be veg-
etarians because the situation in which they were living meant
they couldn’t survive that way. But if you look at the Jain pre-
cept of aparigraha, that possessions mean obstacles to libera-
tion, you see that in native culture there is word for concepts
like saving, hoarding etc.”
For over 33 years, Shah has had an unwavering commitment
to serve the native people who are on the margins of Canada’s
society – and it is because of this work that he was presented
with the ‘Eagle Feather’ by leaders of First Nations as far back
as in October 1999.
The Eagle Feather is one of the most sacred objects for the
Indians, and the highest recognition they could give anyone.
Shah received the Feather for his work in the field of native
health, said Lady McGregor, elder of the Cree nation of the
First Nations people.
Ovide Mercredi, former Chief of Assembly of the First
Nations, calls Shah a role model in professionalism. ”When
some people reach the pinnacle in their lives and careers, they
forget the people — but not Shah. He’s always there for our
people, as a member of the medical profession and as a
teacher/professor,” says Mercredi.
The Eagle Feather represents the spirit of courage, sacrifice,
friendship and respect for other people – tenets that, Shah says,
he had pledged to abide by. It is as part of this commitment to
the native people that, at the University of Toronto, Shah was
the driving force behind the establishment of the Annual
Visiting Lectureship Program on Native Health in 1990. He
later secured $2 million to establish an Endowed Chair in
Aboriginal Health and Wellbeing at the University of Toronto
in 2000, the first of its kind in Canada.
At Toronto’s Anishnawbe Health Center, Shah has been providing health care for the First Nations since 1996, and continues to work there for three days each week. “Diabetes amongst
aboriginal people is almost an epidemic, and it is attributed to
change in their life style due to acculturation, unemployment –
plus these people suffer from hypertension, high cholesterol,
drug addiction, respiratory problems, etc,” Shah says.
‘Broken Promisesin Promised Land’ was the title of a forum
he organized in November 2007 where the keynote speaker
was former Prime Minister Paul Martin. Shah says he organized the forum “to highlight the deplorable health and social
conditions of our First Nations people” who, he believes, need
the support of non-aboriginal people.
To this end, he began lobbying with the Department of
Citizenship and Immigration to provide some information
about First Nation peoples to new immigrants, who have little
knowledge of such tribes. As a result of this initiative, the
Canadian government started providing some material to new
immigrants – material that has become part of the exam for citizenship.
In 2008, Shah carried out an environment scan to determine
the extent to which health sciences programs in Ontario universities prepare their students in aboriginal cultural competency. On finding that there was no such competency curriculum, Shah began work to develop one, and hopes to complete it
His textbook ‘Public Health and Preventive Medicine in
Canada’ is now in its 5th edition – a unique resource widely
used by Canadian undergraduate and graduate students from a
range of health disciplines.
Given his accomplishments, it is no surprise that honors have
flowed his way in an unremitting stream. In 2007, the Dalla
Lana School of Public Health, University of Toronto, estab-
lished the CP Shah Alumni Award of Excellence in Public
Health. He has received the Order of Ontario for his contribu-
tion to the public health of native people, and was recognized
in 2007 as an Outstanding Physician of Ontario by the College
of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario, which said Shah came
close to their vision of the ‘Ideal Physician.’
Shah however takes the greatest pride in this, that he has
been able to bear witness to a gradual improvement in the lot
of the native people he has spent a lifetime helping. “More and
more of them are now going to the universities, and you will
find amongst them doctors, PhDs — even though there are not
many of them as it is happening slowly, but it is still wonderful,”
Shah says, with undisguised pleasure.