I stopped going to high school when I was 15 and formally withdrew the day I turned 16. At the time, I thought school was a waste of time and I was more interested in exploring other things – sexuality, drugs, music, and the open road. I followed my then girlfriend and her family to New Brunswick, convinced that I was going to marry her. She was much more mature than I was and, when I returned to Hamilton to tell my parents about my plans, she advised me in a letter that I should not come back as she was seeing someone else.
I started working at a local manufacturing firm that made sandpaper belts and buffing compounds for the metal trim that used to adorn cars and household appliances. The work was boring, gritty, and did not pay well. I moved into an apartment with one of my workmates, who happened to be addicted to speed, and I started to inject it as well. I became depressed and suicidal – why work for the next 40 years in a job I did not like and then die; why not just die? That was the fall of 1972. I heard a song on the radio by John Prine called ‘Sam Stone’, about a returning Vietnam vet who died from a heroin overdose, and I became very frightened. At Christmas of that year, on a visit to my parents, my brother who was then six, asked me to read a book about dinosaurs that he had received as a gift. I had great difficulty reading the polysyllabic text and began to cry –I felt so stupid. I asked my mother if I could move back home and, in the first week of school, went to Delta to ask Mr. Earl Lewis (Vice Principal) to let me back into school. I promised him that if he let me back into grade 11, I would prove to him that I would be a different and much better student than the one he had known. By the end of grade 12, I graduated Valedictorian. In Grade 13 I did very well and went on to complete my BA (Hons), MSc, and PhD at McMaster.
I received a phone call from someone at HCF and was told I received a bursary of $700, which was enough to pay my tuition. Much later (1988), I found out that my grade 13 English teacher, Mrs. Ethel Thayer, had put my name forward. I had written to Ethel, and to a couple of other of my high school teachers who had been so important and inspirational to me (Lee Swan, grade 11 Geography and Rob Ireland, grade 12 Theatre Arts) that I had accepted a position as Assistant Professor of Geography at Simon Fraser University. I was eager to thank them for profoundly changing the path of my life.
Today, I am a Professor in both the School of Public Health and Social Policy, and in the Department of Geography, at the University of Victoria, where I am also the Director of Health Research and Education, the Director of the Interdisciplinary Social Dimensions of Health Graduate program, and Director of the School of Public Health and Social Policy. I have been at UVic for three years, after spending 22 years at SFU.
The Chaney Ensign Bursary helped me in profound ways. It marked the first time in my adult life that I felt recognized for my academic abilities. I was chosen valedictorian by my peers at Delta not for my grades, but for my contributions to the social life of the school – performing in the Christmas Concert, putting on concerts featuring singer-songwriters I had met through the Knight II Coffeehouse that I volunteered at as a way of keeping myself focused when I had gone back to school, helping to promote dances, etc.
The bursary helped to give me self-confidence. Growing up in Hamilton’s Code Red area (Barton and Victoria, Cannon and Gage, Barton and Kenilworth) did not provide much opportunity to meet people with post-secondary education and I was very self-conscious that I did not belong at university. The bursary was a point of reference against my inner anxieties about belonging in an academic environment.
It would be hard to express my gratitude to Genevieve Chaney & Cordelia Ensign. The HFC bursary was a fantastic boost to me. It was one of the central elements that helped me to change my life course. Ironically, in my professional role, I study the origins of health inequities like those at the centre of the Code Red series, and the public policy issues embedded within them. For me, this work is not an abstraction. Rather, it is a concrete expression of my own experiences. Interventions like the HCF bursary can make enormous and profound changes in the life course experiences of people, especially those whose social circumstances create enormous obstacles to getting out of a life of disadvantage. It was and is a great honour to have received the HCF bursary and to have enjoyed the incalculable benefits that have followed. Thank you!