The race is on: Dr. James Makokis vies for CMA presidency

Posted on Monday, February 22, 2021

A doctor giving a vaccine to a woman in a clinic.

By Michelle Read

After winning TV’s The Amazing Race Canada in 2019, Dr. James Makokis is used to competing for a national title in a field of strong contestants.

Now, he has shifted his sights to a title with more than just bragging rights. Campaigning for the presidency of the Canadian Medical Association (CMA), Faculty of Medicine alum Dr. Makokis is chasing the opportunity to shift the conversation in medicine and ensure a diversity of voices are heard.

“If elected, I would be the first Indigenous, and two-spirit, president in the 154-year history of the CMA,” he says. “I’m excited by the potential for change at a national, systems level.”

Shifting conversations

On February 26, CMA will declare the results of its election for the next president, to be ratified at its Annual General Meeting in August.

“Several Indigenous female physician colleagues encouraged me to run,” says Dr. Makokis, a family physician originally from Saddle Lake Cree Nation in Alberta. “We’d like to bring awareness to the work we are doing on anti-Indigenous racism in the health care system, as well as improving Indigenous health and moving the conversation around Reconciliation and allyship forward in tangible ways. Working with non-Indigenous allies is fundamental to addressing these important issues.”

Dr. Makokis explains that his reasons also involve increasing the visibility of diverse groups within the medical system, particularly medical leadership.

“It is important to have proper representation of all groups within medicine,” he says. “For example, medicine today is institutionalized, yet the way Indigenous people practice is very humanistic—a shift I would like to see in medicine.”

His candidacy has been endorsed by prominent leaders in the Indigenous, medical and political communities (see sidebar). As well, Canadian viewers of the hit television competition may even be his strongest endorsement. Personable and good-natured, Dr. Makokis and his husband—running under the name Team Ahkameyimok, Cree for “Don’t give up”—were voted fan favourites.

“As a family show, that is where change and transformation can happen,” he says. “Fans told us we helped them discuss terms like two-spirit and MMIW with their kids. By bringing these previously silenced topics into the public, we can transform relationships with Indigenous people in this country and start to shift the conversation in medicine.

“The CMA president is a spokesperson, and it is important that people can relate to them,” Dr. Makokis continues, “especially in Alberta where the political climate has become adversarial toward physicians—we need to build bridges.”

Two-spirit is a contemporary English term used to describe the concept of gender and sexual diversity that existed on Turtle Island, which for some Indigenous peoples refers to North America, before colonization.

Saving lives through medical practice

Dr. Makokis is working to rebuild the Cree medical system by infusing Cree medicines, knowledge, language and teachings into his own practice. As a family physician, he is moving Indigenous health forward on three fronts.

His first practice, in south Edmonton, provides transgender health care and medical hormone replacement therapy for gender diverse populations.

“One of my colleagues, himself a trans physician, once told me: ‘If you practice trans medicine, you will save lives,’” reflects Dr. Makokis. “Sadly, over 50% of trans, two-spirit people have committed or attempted suicide.”

For the last five years, Dr. Makokis has also served on Kehewin Cree Nation, three hours northeast of Edmonton, as its first and only family physician. “The community had been underserviced for so long,” Dr. Makokis says.

The Nation recently received its first batch of COVID-19 vaccines. With vaccine hesitancy a concern due to a history of Indigenous abuse in the medical system, Dr. Makokis says it was important that the Nation’s elders demonstrate the safety of the vaccine.

“I administered the first dose to my aunt within a traditional Cree ceremony,” he says. “In our Nation, the grandmothers have the responsibility of carrying ‘opikihawasowin’—which means growing the next generation of little spirits to come. Modelling the act of getting the vaccine to younger generations is integral to that and demonstrates their leadership and love for the People.”

Finally, Dr. Makokis is working remotely as medical director of Shkaabe Makwa, at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto. The first Indigenous, hospital-based program in the country, its care incorporates Indigenous medicine, culture, spirituality and teachings.

“We want to work at expanding these types of services for people, because they’re life-changing,” he says.

Dr. Makokis has the support of the Faculty of Medicine in his run for the CMA presidency.

Ahkameyimoh, Dr. Makokis!


Photos of Dr. James Makokis with former Governor General and Head of State Michaëlle Jean

Dr. Makokis's candidacy has been endorsed by prominent leaders in the Indigenous, medical and political communities, including former Governor General and Head of State Michaëlle Jean. Photo credit: Dr. James Makokis

Main photo credit: Jodi Gadwa-Cardinal

Update March 4, 2021: On February 26, Dr. Alika Lafontaine was declared the 2021 CMA president-elect nominee.

A doctor stands in front of a window with a view of a city.

If elected, Dr. James Makokis would be the first Indigenous (and two-spirit) president of the Canadian Medical Association. Photo credit: Anthony Johnson

A doctor giving a vaccine to a woman in a clinic.

Dr. Makokis administers the COVID-19 vaccine to his aunt, one of the elders of the Kehewin Cree Nation, while a family performs a ceremonial Cree honour song in the background. Photo credit: Jodi Gadwa-Cardinal

Visions of leadership

Dr. Makokis is grateful for the vision of the Faculty of Medicine Indigenous Program to create leaders who would transform the medical system. Indeed, the Faculty has acknowledged Dr. Makokis’s own rise—late last year, a decade after his 2010 graduation from the Program, the Faculty awarded him with a Rising Star Alumni Award of Distinction at its Alumni Awards of Distinction 2020.

“I’m so proud that uOttawa is my alma mater, and 100% thankful to the University for having that vision,” he muses. “Without it, I would not be a doctor, nor running for this position and its exciting opportunity for change.

“I’m excited that Albertan physicians can help make history in the election of the CMA’s first Indigenous and two-spirit physician—this would help open the door for so many others who have not seen themselves in similar positions.”

Dr. Makokis’s candidacy for the presidency of the CMA has been endorsed by prominent leaders in the Indigenous, medical and political communities.

Those showing their support include former Governor General and Head of State Michaëlle Jean and Dr. Darlene Kitty, former president of the Indigenous Physicians Association of Canada and now director of the Faculty’s Indigenous Program, of which Dr. Makokis is a graduate. Other leaders include Alberta Assembly of First Nations Regional Chief Marlene Poitras, the CEO of the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, and the Dean of Public Health at the University of Toronto. 

“It feels good to be supported by the Indigenous communities in Alberta, since this is where the election is occurring,” says Dr. Makokis.

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