Doctor’s “Ask”

By Dr. James Christie, Ambassador-at-Large, Canadian Multifaith Federation

– – –

Those among us who enjoy the great fortune of living in jurisdictions in which healthcare (public, private, or mixed) is widely available will have heard, and probably employed, the descriptive phrase, “Doctor’s Orders.”

You know the sort of thing: “I have to cut back on caffeine: Doctor’s Orders;” or “I need to get more exercise: Doctor’s Orders;” or, my personal favourite, “I have to take some time off work: Doctor’s Orders.”  Welcome or not, “Doctor’s Orders” carry an authoritative caché that demands attention if not compliance.  I speak from personal experience as I pour a third cup of strong black coffee and decline a brisk stroll in the picturesque blizzard sweeping southwest Québec.

A Remarkable “Ask”

“Doctor’s Orders” are commonplace.  “Doctor’s Asks,” not so much.  And yet, the first month of 2021 was dominated by the response to just that: an “Ask” by Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s Chief Medical Officer.  Readers from the United States and beyond might think of her as Canada’s Dr. Fauci: to date the twenty-first century’s most famous ‘Plague Doctor’.

Image credit: The Canadian Press/Jonathan Hayward

It happened like this.

Readers of Viewpoints may recall a December column in which I described an intimate gathering of 428 Canadian Religious Leaders with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.  You may also recall certain reservations I expressed about the efficacy of the event.  Except, that is, for Pandit Roopnauth Sharma’s pointed question concerning the essential role of religious communities and leaders during times of regional, national, and global crises. The Prime Minister promised that he would look into the question.

What transpired subsequently and behind the scenes is unclear.  But a week into the New Year, the Privy Council Office (PCO), the supervisory body of the Canadian Civil Service; the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC); and Dr. Tam’s Office instituted a first in Canada and quite possibly globally.

Taking the lead, the PCO reached out, at Dr. Tam’s request, to the Canadian Mutlifaith Federation (CMF); The Canadian Council of Churches (CCC); the Canadian Interfaith Conversation (CIC); and Indigenous Elders to convene a gathering of ecumenical and multifaith leaders.  The idea was to convene a safe space and an open table (virtually, of course) to consult on how Canada’s religious and spiritual communities might assist in the COVID-19 vaccine rollout from coast to coast to coast.

It was Doctor Tam’s “Ask.”

It was groundbreaking.

It was a first for all the participants: federal agencies and faith-based organizations alike.

And it worked.

An Unprecedented Collaboration

Let’s examine it first by the numbers.  Zoom invitations, customized to address the various faith traditions extant in Canada, were distributed.  An original limit of 1000 registrants was set.  Within 72 hours, that number of positive responses had been reached, and the registration cap removed.  At cut-off, 48 hours prior to the event with Dr. Tam, 1348 registrations had been received.  On the day itself, over 1100 of those registrants logged in.  1085 participants remained engaged in the meeting.  62 questions from participants were recorded in advance of the gathering; over 160 more were recorded during the event itself.  All, though sometimes categorically grouped, will by now have been addressed.

Minister of Health Patty Hajdu with Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam and Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland during a Coronavirus Update in Ottowa – Image Credit: Justin Tang, The Canadian Press

At 16:00 Eastern Time, January 27th, the meeting was convened by PCO Officers.  It was formally opened and the work dedicated by an Indigenous Elder of the Algonquin People, who set both the context and the tone.  She illustrated the purpose of the gathering through an exposition of The Medicine Wheel and demonstrated the solidarity of the human community from the four directions: inclusive of all peoples, all races, and all faiths.

The host and the moderator respectively were of Hindu and Sikh traditions.  Dr. Tam was given the virtual floor and blended technical vaccine and public health information with sensitivity to and awareness of Canada’s diverse religious and spiritual expressions.  She noted the challenges confronting many communities in the daunting task of vaccine rollout.  Dr. Tam addressed directly the historically justified concerns of some communities – notably Indigenous – regarding both medical authorities and government offices and officials.

And then Dr. Tam, with grace and patience, answered question after question after question.

Afterwards, she pledged that January 27th was only the beginning.

Onward and Upward

Dr. Theresa Tam embodied everything which drives the IF20 movement: A new faith-state relationship built neither on diffidence nor distrust, but on a new global social contract of mutual respect and cooperation.

Of course, here in Canada, we will have to both keep up the pressure and live up to what we have begun.

But, it is a beginning.  The foot is wedged firmly in the door.  Only 19 more countries and then the world.

– – –

Dr. James Christie is the inaugural Ambassador-at-Large for the Canadian Multifaith Federation and part of the G20 Interfaith Forum Board of Directors. For 15 years, Christie served at the University of Winnipeg as Dean of Theology, Dean of the Global College, and Director of the Ridd Institute for Religion and Global Policy.