Celebrating Black History Month: Diversity and representation in healthcare

In celebration of Black History Month, Collette Montague, Director of Professional Practice and Programs, shares her lived experiences of being a Black woman, parent, and healthcare leader.

Black high school students are the most likely to be streamed into special education and applied programs and are the least likely to enroll in college and university when compared to white and other racialized students. Discrimination against Black youth is linked to negative stereotypes and lower expectations from teachers and school staff. My experience was no different.

I was told that I needed special education even though my parents requested tutoring supports that were never granted. I dropped out of high school; my guidance counsellor told me I would never make it as a doctor or nurse and to get a full-time job in retail instead. I was stressed because of this and felt unsupported by the school system; many of my black friends had a similar experience. 

A year later, I returned to finish, and after graduation I pursued a career in nursing. Discrimination followed me from high-school into my Nursing Diploma at Centennial College, through to my Nursing Degree at Ryerson. I did not add to a statistic; instead, I graduated as 1 of 3 Black students out of a class of 120… but who was I to think this didn’t happen in the professional world?

I began my first RN position at a hospital and then transitioned to another of Canada’s top hospitals – the location did not matter. Acceptance of patients and their families using identifying language like the ‘coloured one’ or asking if there was another nurse when referring to my care became numbing. Even at the time, everyone knew this was historically inappropriate, and I was never met with support from coworkers or upper management. Eventually, I just accepted it and moved on continuing to deliver care.

Across the span of my entire career, I have been fortunate enough to find at least 1 strong, Black, female nurse in a leadership role – my only real support who understood what it felt like to stand alone. To this day, we are connected, and she is incredible, but the reality is more Black women should have been able to be where she is… it is not for their lack of effort or qualification. There is a large percentage of Black women in health care and a large percentage of Black women in nursing, some Black women leading in other sectors but not enough Black women leading in the healthcare sector. 

It’s not about where we work or when we worked there; it’s about a broken system. 

I recognize my experiences are my own; however, they are real lived experiences for others within our community. Some silent forms of discrimination are prejudices in the education system, racial profiling while travelling, covert stares, comments or persons clutching their purse as I walk by (so I clutch mine right back, lol). 

Black-based discrimination is deeply rooted in Canadian institutions and specifically in the health care system. Blacks are more likely to experience chronic health conditions leading to poor outcomes. Black people are more likely to experience homelessness, food insecurity, or issues securing income and employment (often overqualified but unselected). All of those determinants lead to negative health indicators for Black people. To address these inequities, organizations do basic education and what they feel is ‘multiculturalism’ or cultural sensitivity training for employees. The problem is it is often led by a white person with little consultation of the minorities.

All this to say… I’m now in a leadership role at a community-based care organization. I have acted as the Director of Programs and Professional Practice at Safehaven for the past five years. I would like to think that I am taking care of complex pedes populations because looking out for underserved communities is part of my DNA. I worked extremely hard to earn this role. Safehaven is a change-maker, and as change-makers, they can turn dialogue into action. 

So, what can I do now?

I can’t ignore the struggles I have had and continue to have; my struggles are what I will use to pave the way to hopefully make a difference, even if it is for just one person.

My family is my blueprint – they came to Canada as immigrants from Jamaica with $35 dollars to start a new life; working multiple jobs facing endless experiences of racism every day. Their stories, their struggles are what keeps my fire burning.

My mom is my hero – she told me to write my own story “God made you Black and beautiful for a reason; your skin color does not define you; the decisions you make and how you allow people to make you feel in your skin is what matters” that keeps me grounded. 

My son is my legacy- I have a Black son that I must teach, coach, parent, raise. I prepare him to work harder than everyone else in the room to get that acting role or explain why he was one of 16 Black students out of 1500 kids in his high school – one of the top academic art schools in Toronto. I continue preparing him how to respond to being called the N-word or being approached by police. Despite the hard conversations, raising a brilliant, funny, and respectful Black man who leaves a positive impression on everyone he meets gives me hope.

My coworkers are my inspiration – I know they need a mentor who looks like them, talks like them and understands their experiences because that’s what I needed when I was in their position. This is what drives me to grow as I learn to become a mentor. 

If I am not identifying discrimination in my personal and professional life, how can I change it anywhere else? 

Black History Month is a reminder to celebrate Black people’s lived experiences, our cultures, our ancestries. Our mission for equality can only be accomplished by balancing the celebrations with historic oppressions that continue today, and that start’s by identifying the issue: Black people deserve to be treated with respect and equal opportunity.

As a mother first, a health care professional second and a leader and a mentor when I can be, I will increase the Black representation in my spaces, so I have a community to grieve with, to learn with, and to lead change with.