Executive Director of the Canadian Women’s Health Network awarded Honorary Doctorate

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Madeline Boscoe, the Executive Director for the Canadian Women’s Health Network, and the Policy and Advocacy Coordinator for the Women’s Health Clinic, Winnipeg, was awarded an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Ottawa on June 5, 2005. Boscoe was recognized for her substantial contributions promoting the health of women and girls in Canada.

For over 20 years, Boscoe has worked in health education and advocacy at the Women's Health Clinic in Winnipeg. She is also a founding member of the Canadian Women's Health Network (CWHN), and has been the Executive Director of the CWHN since 1995.

The University of Ottawa annually awards Honorary Doctorates to those individuals who have made a substantial contribution to their profession or society at large. "An Honorary Doctorate acknowledges that the recipient deserves to be recognized for their unsurpassed abilities due to life's learning and experiences," says the Office of the President.

Canadian women’s health movement celebrated by University of Ottawa

"I see this award being given to me as really an award for our collective work"

by MADELINE BOSCOE, Commencement remarks (abridged), delivered at the University of Ottawa

Madame Chancellor, Members of the University of Ottawa's academic community, and invited guests. I am privileged to be here with you today. Especially to be in a university that has identified research on women’s health as a priority.

Since learning I would receive this honor, I have been trying to figure out what insights or lessons I could share with you that might have some meaning on this special occasion.

There are some, which I believe, could be useful to you as you go forward as health care providers, researchers and citizens. Lessons that I am confident will contribute to better health for women, and also, better health for men.

I have been lucky. I've been able to spend my time working to advance the health and status of women with an extended and diverse community: the women’s health movement.

I can visualize my colleagues standing here with me this evening. And I see this award being given to me as really an award for our collective work.

Like most social movements, the women's health movement has given voice to those who are often marginalized by society and given limited, if any, decision making power in setting health policies and priorities.

It rose out of, and with, the broader women’s movement -- with shared critiques and dissatisfactions. It was a growing rejection of the narrow and unequal social roles forced on women, roles that undermined our social as well as health status. We were very concerned about a health care system that did not -- and still, often, does not -- take women into account. We were frustrated as recipients of care and as those who worked providing care.

We -- and we used the word "we" intentionally to ensure we maintained a commitment to equity, and to resist thinking that some of us were more "expert" than others -- we came together to share experiences and knowledge. We looked at our cervixes, fitted diaphragms, fought for home care and "caught" babies.

We shared stories about our interactions with the medical system. And we started asking questions.

We came to understand that knowledge is power -- and sought to get our experiences counted as knowledge. We realized that those who formulated the research questions controlled the answers. And so, we initiated our own research, about the problems that concerned us most.

Through discussion and debate, we developed new approaches to health care services, approaches that would not over-medicalize our health and well-being.

For example, we looked at the high use of tranquilizers and mood elevators and realized that we were not "mad," but we were angry; angry that the impact of poverty, violence and racism on our health was ignored. Angry because much of the focus on our health was because we were seen as "containers" for developing fetuses or because we were seen as the (unpaid) agents to provide health information and care within our families and communities.

We understood that access to reproductive health care was critical to the equality and human rights of women.

We were frustrated that normal events in our lives, like birth and menopause, were reduced to abnormalities requiring interventions.

In short, we understood that women’s health is a political, social and economic matter and, to quote Sharon Batt, a longtime breast cancer activist, we would be "Patient No More."

When I think of some of the projects with which I am currently involved -- preserving and enhancing medicare, organizing public involvement in decisions about the "safety" of breast implants, advocating for access to midwifery or birth centres, and drawing on the work of colleagues in Quebec to implement "anti-poverty legislation" -- a couple of themes emerge.

One is about the need for changes in the relationships between health care providers and their clients/patients and the other is related to the role that we, as health professionals, can play within our democracy.

On the wall of my office is a quote from a woman who participated in an endometriosis support group I facilitated years ago. "The more I know, the fewer doctors I can talk to," she said. What did she mean by this?

Several things, I think:

  • that she had had to become an expert in her own health issues;
  • that she was not prepared to blindly accept the information or treatments suggested to her; and
  • that, by asking questions and questioning the status quo, she created tensions between her and her health care providers -- to the point that, at times, her providers began to see her, and patients like her, as "bad patients" to whom they did not want to provide care.

She already knew that we need to rethink how we structure care. That new approaches are called for, ones that:

  • engage our patients/clients much more directly in the design of, and control of, health care delivery services;
  • that encourage innovative services models;
  • that are based on multidisciplinary teams of providers with professionals and para-professionals working together;
  • that engage citizens in the development and synthesis of research; and last but not least,
  • that provide for new collaborative and equal relationships between health care providers and the citizens we serve.

As well, we need to rethink our roles as health educators -- even when we are not at work.

Health care providers have a long history of contributing to advancing healthy public policy: safe water and waste management, nutrition programs, the value of good hand washing and tobacco control, to name but a few examples.

We have always been advocates for public health.

I believe there is, now, a critical leadership role for all of us to promote the understanding that health is, in many ways, a product of, or one could say, a "side effect" of, public policy, and not just of personal behavior.

Health care providers have always understood intuitively that poverty is hazardous to health -- not only for those living in poverty but to the health of everyone.

We urgently need to help the rest of society understand this relationship -- that social exclusion and inequities in income affect the health of all. It will take time, but is no less challenging, I think, than explaining the germ theory or the relationship between smoking, depression and heart disease.

And so, I urge you to get involved, get involved in minimum wage reviews, demands for supportive housing programs, reviews of the tax structure and other public policy debates that affect health. If we fail to reduce poverty and social inequality in our society, we will never fully be able to protect or improve the health of women — or men....

All of us can learn, and learn richly and deeply, from the critical voices working on the margins of society. Remember: "First do no harm," and that compassion and empathy are critical skills for the work that awaits you. Seek joy. And, have the courage to challenge assumptions and to make a real difference.

Full commencement remarks available at: http://www.cwhn.ca/resources/cwhn/madSpeech.html