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Associate dean of Indigenous Health at SFU medical school focused on equity

October 03, 2023
Evan Adams is the new acting associate dean of Indigenous Health at the SFU medical school

With the health-care system in crisis, the new acting associate dean of Indigenous Health at Simon Fraser University’s medical school is ready to bring his “A” game.

Dr. Evan Adams, visiting professor in the Faculty of Health Sciences and Deputy Chief Medical Health Officer at First Nations Health Authority (FNHA), was named to the role earlier this week and is tasked with helping SFU’s forthcoming medical school embed and equalize Indigenous knowledge systems within its foundations of learning.

“I feel ready to be a good bridge between local First Nations, the FNHA and Simon Fraser University – it’s a good fit for me,” says Adams. “I feel passionately about having the system be responsive to Indigenous learners and be a place where medical students and residents are learning more about Indigenous health and challenged to be more effective.

“And one of my friends said, ‘When are you ever going to get a chance to help develop a new medical school again?’,” he laughs. “That was kind of the clincher.”

Adding a touch of levity and good humour isn’t unusual to Adams, who admits he’s lucky to be the type of person who always wakes up happy no matter how exhausted he is.
“I feel like that’s a gift that Creator gave to me, I wake up smiling,” he says. “I know for a lot of people, they feel the weight of their responsibilities. I just have a natural bounce back.”

Adams harnesses that energy into a number of pursuits and passions.

In addition to his roles at SFU and FNHA, Adams, with his husband Allan, is a father of six. He’s an avid runner, hitting the road for up to 30 kilometres a week. He’s held influential public health positions nationally and in B.C.

Adams with his sons Jonathan and Dylan, and his husband Allan

Oh, and he’s also an accomplished actor, appearing in movies such as 1998’s Smoke Signals and recent television shows like FX’s Reservation Dogs and CBC’s Bones of Crows.

Taking on the first medical school in western Canada in over 50 years is a different beast altogether, but Adams says he’s up for the challenge.

Part of that is due to his Coast Salish Tla’amin upbringing, and especially the teachings of his late father, Leslie.

“He was a great teacher of mine, a very traditional First Nations man,” says Adams. “He was a chief, a good hunter and a really strong, morally upright person.

“He was a professional athlete and I was a very mediocre one. But he would tell me to get in there and not be shy. Don’t just barely show up and fax it in. If you’re going to be in the game, you might as well play the best game you have.”

He’s held tight to that philosophy, which will be vital for his role at the SFU medical school.

“There’s a lot of work to do in health. It’s an unending need. As a caregiver, I’m constantly being asked, ‘Can you help with this? Can you help with that?’ and it’s easy to get tired. But I think of my dad, ‘Get up and play your game. Don’t be lazy. Get ‘er done,’” Adams says.

“The health-care system is in crisis post-COVID-19. From an Indigenous perspective, the system needs to transform and become more humane. I feel like SFU is armed to transform and bring its great humanitarian history and its different approaches into the world of medicine. It’s wonderful they’re willing to help train more health-care workers because there is really such a need. It’s sensible, it’s welcome and it’s needed.”

Indigenizing SFU’s medical school

One of Adams’ main tasks with the SFU medical school is to Indigenize medical education.

“That just means we can gain the skills and knowledges and attitudes to be more effective with Indigenous people in mind,” he explains. “Equity should be one of the pursuits of health-care workers and I think part of what we’re doing is seeking equity. Equity of service and equity of outcomes.

“It’s clear that more Indigenous people need to go into health professions and it’s clear that health professions might benefit from Indigenous knowledges, especially in the B.C. context. We’re at a crucial time where we can try to mix all of these different strengths together to see if we can come up with something new and powerful.

“That’s the area I want to be in, instead of just doing things the same old way without even trying to make it more responsible or having better quality. There has to be room for everyone at the table.”

Star struck

Adams in the movie Kayak to Klemtu

Adams hasn’t just left his mark on health care.

Since being discovered on the streets of Montreal and cast in a movie, Adams has racked up dozens of acting credits since 1985.

His role in indie film Smoke Signals won him best actor awards from the American Indian Film Festival, First Americans in the Arts Awards, Chlotrudis Awards and the Film Independent Spirit Awards.

He’s also won the outstanding actor award at L.A. Outfest for 2002’s The Business of Fancydancing, a 2011 Gemini Award for Best Host and a Leo best supporting performance nomination for 2020’s Indian Road Trip.

“Some people crochet or gamble. I love to act,” he says. “I find it immensely funny and interesting. One of the nice things about acting is if you make a mistake, no one dies. You just re-do the take. So yeah, I’ll keep doing that, it’s just my little bit of fun.”

Being a recognizable star does have it benefits when it comes to dealing with patients.
“It actually does help me as a doctor,” he says. “Sometimes, they don’t even think of me as their caregiver. They’re just really interested to talk and meet and chat. I get more of an opportunity to interact with them because I’m also known as an actor rather than just a doctor.”

Adams even recalls one time he was working in an emergency department treating a stabbing victim alongside some star struck fans.

“His daughters knew who I was and they were taking pictures with me while I was helping their dad,” Adams chuckles. “It was a strange experience. He was fine in the end, totally fine!