Being the only First Nations forensic pathologist in Canada can be isolating and brings with it a lot of responsibility but Dr. Kona Williams views it as a privilege to get to know somebody in death.
“You actually get to see this person in death in a way that nobody else can,” said Williams, speaking from her home in Sudbury, Ont.
The Kanien’kehá:ka (Mohawk) and Cree doctor currently serves as medical director of the Department of Laboratory Medicine and Pathology at Health Sciences North (HSN), a regional hospital in Sudbury serving northeastern Ontario. Her leadership is viewed as trailblazing by many but her journey into forensic pathology hasn’t been a walk in the park.
Being in a male-dominated profession on top of being the only First Nations person working in the field in Canada, she’s dealt with racism, stereotypes and discrimination throughout her 14 years of post-secondary education, and while working across Ontario.
“Medicine, there’s still a lot of systemic racism. That is a huge barrier,” she said.
“I’ve gotten horrible things like, ‘I hope you end up missing and murdered.'”
Forensic pathology is a subspecialty of pathology, specializing in the examination of people who die suddenly, unexpectedly or violently to determine cause and manner of death. It’s a career Williams never thought about until meeting University of Ottawa professor Dr. Mary Senterman, one of her mentors in medical school.
Williams graduated from medical school in 2009 and completed her residency training in anatomical pathology at the University of Ottawa in 2014. A year later, she completed a fellowship in forensic pathology at the University of Toronto.
She worked for the Ontario Forensic Pathology Service (OFPS) in Toronto until taking up most recent role in Sudbury in 2018.
“Indigenous women in medicine bring a quality and gift that changes lives,” said Deanna Jones-Keeshig, director of Indigenous Health at HSN.
“Dr. Kona Williams amplifies this in her leadership and her determination to create a path forward that respects the continuity of life. Her connection to spirit, heart, mind as well as ways of being and doing has allowed her to share her knowledge to uplift and empower Indigenous communities.”
Dr. Jayantha Herath, deputy chief forensic pathologist at the OFPS, said Williams’s work provides a strong link between the OFPS and the communities she serves.
“Kona provides a valuable cultural perspective and knowledge to the Ontario death investigation system,” said Herath.
“Kona’s experience and insight have led her to work on high-profile and complex issues in Thunder Bay and Northwest Ontario, including residential schools, the Broken Trust reinvestigations, and Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.”
Many of the cases that land on Williams’s desk now are from First Nations communities. She described it as seeing the consequences of the disparities of health in the North, coupled with disparities of social-economic issues with Indigenous people.
“We get a lot of marginalized people who live on the fringes and die because of their addictions, mental health,” said Williams.
“You get to see that in a way that a lot of other people can’t. Every case, every person I meet who is dead, I learn something from, and I hope that continues for the rest of my life.”
Lending expertise to missing children, unmarked burials committee
On top of her day job, in July, Williams was appointed to the National Advisory Committee on Missing Children and Unmarked Burials, which is funded through Crown-Indigenous Relations, joining other independent experts on archaeology, archival research, Indigenous laws, criminal investigations, as well as residential school survivors.
“In whatever capacity I can bring, if not answers about how people died, at least closure or some peace to people,” said Williams.
Although it’s a big responsibility, Williams said it’s a much bigger honour.
Her father Gordon Williams, who died in 2019, was forced to attend Birtle Indian Residential School, northwest of Brandon, Man., and her mother Karen Jacobs-Williams attended federal Indian day school in Kahnawà:ke, south of Montreal.
As for combating racism, she hopes as the number of Indigenous people working in medicine grows, the easier it will be to bear.
“It won’t happen in my lifetime where this goes away,” she said.
“But at some point, it won’t be something difficult that people have to face and they can just focus on studying and being a really good doctor.”