The board of the Nova Scotia Health Authority says it has a long way to go to reflect the diversity of the province, but it is taking the first step.
On Wednesday, Stephen Augustine will start a three-year term as a director on the 13-member board. He said he was surprised to learn he’ll be the first Indigenous person to hold the position.
“It’s time,” Augustine said after his position was announced during the the authority’s annual general meeting on Tuesday. “Things are changing quite rapidly in terms of inclusion and diversity.”
Augustine is Cape Breton University’s associate vice-president of Indigenous Affairs and Unama’ki College.
“I will be able to initiate a lot of discussion among the board about the issues of diversity,” he said. “I’ve been teaching cross-cultural education programs since the 70s, since I started working for the federal and provincial governments.”
Frank van Schaayk, the chair of the board, agreed they have a long ways to go to reflect Nova Scotia’s diversity. The past board was made up entirely of white men and women.
“We also know that having one racially diverse person on a 13-person board that represents an organization of more than 23,000 people does not equate to equitable representation,” he said.
When asked about the history of the board and why this hadn’t happened sooner, van Schaayk was hesitant to comment.
“I wasn’t here and I wasn’t part of it to be honest, so it wouldn’t be fair to my predecessors and colleagues,” van Schaayk said. “It was a gargantuan job to try and put together nine health authorities and I can only assume that the focus was so much on the size of that job.”
He noted that for more than a year, he was having discussions with both Indigenous and African Nova Scotian leadership groups to try and find people open to joining.
‘A bit of a Rubik’s cube’
He referred to it as a demanding position, with about 30 meetings a year and a lot of travel.
He also said the Health Authorities Act lays out particular requirements about who qualifies, but it doesn’t include diversity. He pointed to an upcoming vacancy later this year, where the person would have to have a financial background.
“It’s a bit of a Rubik’s cube putting together the board because we have geographic considerations, we have skill set requirements, we have the whole question of impact,” he said, adding it might take a change in the act to create designated seats for diverse positions.
In the meantime, there is one current vacancy, and van Schaayk said a candidate with a diverse background had been found. He expected to make an announcement in the coming months.
“We have not to date had equitable representation of all Nova Scotians on the board and that simply needs to change.”
Augustine is hopeful he can play a key role in that change.
He said across Canada, Indigenous people have had inadequate healthcare. He said the disparities aren’t as large in Nova Scotia, but there’s still much to learn about being inclusive.
“Hopefully it will contribute towards resolving an overall general issue.”
Now that his appointment has been announced, he hopes to hear more first hand stories about health care concerns.
“I’m finding that there is a lot of complaints about the lack of service and lack of medical doctors here in Cape Breton. So I was glad that I was called upon and I will speak not just for first nations people but also people in Cape Breton.”
He’ll participate in his first meeting later in the summer, but before then, he says there’s a lot to catch up on. “It’s a lot of reading.”