High Honours for Dr. Bernard Lapointe

Dr. Bernard Lapointe


Congratulations to our colleague and friend, Bernard Lapointe, who has been nominated Officer of the Order of Canada. This honorific distinction, amongst the highest in this country, was conferred by Her Excellency, the Right Honourable Mary Simon, Governor General of Canada, for his extraordinary contributions to the nation in the field of palliative care. Bravo, Bernard, for this well-deserved honour!

In a recent conversation with Bernard, I asked him to reminisce and reflect on some of the highlights of his career – quirky moments, seminal moments and some thoughts on the future of palliative care.

You have received many awards in your distinguished career. What makes this one so special?

The big difference is that this one is not a professional honour. I realize it is a recognition of my contribution to this country – the improvement of quality of life for Canadians through a life-time career. I was not expecting it and I am deeply humbled by it.

When you look back on your long career, what are some of the highlights for you?

The first one has nothing to do with Palliative Care, but I started my career in the north part of Quebec as a young family physician. I learned my trade there, but more than that, I learned the importance of community, working in a community and with community. From the start I got involved with the development of a community radio that was broadcasting into English, French and Cree. This allowed me to be a very active member of the community. One time, when the morning man had to take a rest, I was asked to take over for a few months in the middle of winter and, you know me, I am not much of a morning person, but I had to be there at 5am to start the tower, let it heat up and then at 6am – you’re on. One morning I overslept and not only me, everyone overslept because they would wake up with the radio! It took a while for me to live that down!

I came back to Montreal in 1985 and this was the beginning of the AIDS epidemic. I was the Medical Director of a small hospital and at the same time, started working in an STD clinic. I became much more involved in the care and support of people living with HIV/AIDS. This was the turning point in my career. I started to be involved in community, in the creation of the first AIDS hospice in Montreal and I worked with Johanne de Montigny in the development of educational material for physicians, psychologists, nurses and volunteers to better support patients and their loved ones. The pandemic was raging and I became involved in a National Working Group on AIDS and Mental Health. A seminal moment in my career happened in 1989 when at an AIDS conference in Montreal, I was asked at the last minute, to replace the Minister of Health of Canada, who was unable to give her scheduled address. My talk went well and I was approached to then join the Federal AIDS Centre as a consultant for AIDS treatment, care and support. This is when I was really able to facilitate and encourage funding of community-based organizations and hospices while at the same time, working with professional organizations like the Canadian Medical Association to improve the care of people living with HIV. I still maintained a practice one day per week in Montreal because it was very important for me to not just be an administrator but to be involved in hands-on care. I travelled back and forth from Ottawa where I helped write the Canadian Strategy on AIDS. When the strategy was finished writing, I came back to Montreal and asked Dr. Balfour Mount if I could join his team at the Royal Victoria Hospital. Other than small community hospices, the Royal Vic was, at that time, the only hospital offering palliative care to AIDS patients and I was honoured to have Bal and Ina Cummings as mentors.

Bal recognized in me the ability to be an influencer and he encouraged me to represent McGill at National and provincial organizations and this is where I was really able to demonstrate my organizational abilities and vision. Looking back on my career, the other thing that stands out for me around this time is that I was asked to teach and to speak. I loved that. It started with AIDS but then I got involved in the International Congress on Palliative Care and then internationally, speaking at home and community care meetings co-sponsored by WHO and the International Red Cross. The first meeting was in Lyon, then in Montreal, Amsterdam, Paris and Bangkok so in that decade, the ‘90’s, I developed networks and colleagues which greatly helped when I played a larger role in the International Congress.

Slowly I became more involved in Canadian organizations, becoming President of the Canadian Hospice Palliative Care Association. I wrote briefs and submissions for the Romanow Commission on The Future of Health Care in Canada. CHPCA was then instrumental in supporting the nomination, by the Prime Minister, of Senator Sharon Carstairs as Minister with Special Responsibility for Palliative Care. Senator Carstairs made such a huge difference in advancing palliative care as a national health priority. I became president of the Quebec association for many years and have been on their Board for a long and stimulating period! I think I have been like a community organizer behind the scenes for much of my career and it is something I have truly loved.

A community organizer is exactly what you are! As you look back and look forward, are you optimistic about Palliative Care becoming a standard of care for all Canadians?

I think people want it. I believe that. Yes, the pandemic hurt us a lot. People wanted the notion of direct care, of being there for the other, not only caring for the person but for the family. They wanted to improve quality of life when we were just aiming to preserve essential care. It was hard. I think we will see a rebound of Palliative Care and see the essential value we carry – caring for the person AND the family.

People are seeing that palliative care and support is needed, not just at end-of-life but also when taking life-preserving treatments, providing symptom relief and helping patients and their families realize what they value most and what their goals for care are.

Another thing that makes me optimistic is the development of a very strong teaching curriculum for young physicians. One of the things I am most proud of was being there in the very first week of the first year in medical school, presenting Palliative Care as part of medicine. There are now increasing roles in the training of nurses, psychologists, social workers, volunteers and many other disciplines.

I am truly blessed to have been affiliated with so many community organizations over my career. Communities have a big role to play in healthcare. It was such fun to be involved with you in Projection Week as part of the McGill Council On Palliative Care and we need to do more of that.

This does not sound like you are truly retiring! And I totally agree with you – activities like Projection Week in Montreal and other similar initiatives across the country and the globe where we shine a spotlight on community programs and encourage conversations about death, dying and living well at all stages of our life are amazing opportunities to engage communities in dialogue about palliative care and to advocate for greater access for all.

Congratulations, again, on this remarkable honour, Bernard. All of us who have worked with you share your pride.

Please click here to read the official announcement and in the McGill Reporter.

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