To improve health outcomes and reduce health disparities, the Association of Ontario Health Centres works to eradicate social inequality and advance health equity. For this reason we’re very pleased that on June 8, award-winning author Lawrence Hill will speak at AOHC's annual conference and reflect on how we can achieve these goals. In The Book of Negroes, The Illegal as well as many other works, Hill has written extensively about social inequality -- in particular racism. In advance of his conference keynote, Lawrence Hill joined us for a brief conversation to set the stage.

In your 2001 book Black Berry, Sweet Juice, you noted that Canadians don’t like to talk about racism.

Yes, Canadians loathe discussing racism, and its corollary -- racial identity. We tend to feel it’s beneath us, that these are problems faced by our nasty neighbour to the south, not ours.

Sometimes people still use the term “post-racial” to suggest that we’ve moved beyond racial injustice. We’re happy to talk about To Kill a Mockingbird that tells the story of racism in Alabama instead of discussing the history of slavery in Canada. It’s morally convenient to turn to Harper Lee for instruction on injustice instead of looking at ourselves. My job is to shake people out of that complacency.

What’s the impact of this reluctance when it comes to anti-black racism?

Many people are skeptical about advocacy groups that talk about anti-black racism and demand change. As recently as the 1950s, my parents were fighting to persuade the Ontario government to enact anti-discrimination legislation. At the time, the government’s response was: “We don’t need legislation because we don’t have racism. Prove to us that racism exists and then we will enact anti-discrimination legislation.” And so this is what my mother did with a group called the Toronto Labour Committee for Human rights, a coalition of Jewish people and blacks who pushed the government to enact anti-discrimination laws -- laws that eventually formed part of the Ontario Human Rights Code. To this day, many people are unaware of deeply systemic issues, for example the low expectations placed upon students with racial minority backgrounds. Students from racial minority backgrounds continue to be streamed into non-academic programs. Many black parents who have children in the school system will express these concerns.

Through your work as an artist, you’re helping Canadians come to terms with racism – past and present. At our June conference you’ll be speaking to delegates who work in Ontario’s health system. What’s the call to action for them?

To know their clients and to continue to innovate. For example, we know that many people in this country do not have legal status or documentation. Your centres respond to their needs even though they don't have an OHIP card. This is extremely important.

Building social acceptance is also key and it is important health centres pay attention to this. Many people who lack privilege naturally distrust institutions. This includes health care institutions. For example, in the black community there’s tremendous stigma around mental illness, so some people won’t seek help. The same is often true of domestic violence. So part of the job is to provide good care but another part of the job is to create conditions that encourage people to come forward and seek help. At your conference I’m looking forward to hearing about how your centres create a sense of community to get people through your doors. That is probably half the battle.

To learn more about Lawrence Hill and the rest of our conference program click here.