Health advocate with 'fire in the belly for justice' one of 9 Nova Scotians named to Order of Canada

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Sharon Davis-Murdoch is a new member of the Order of Canada, honoured for her 'dedication to improving the health equity and inclusion of racialized communities in Nova Scotia.' (Submitted by Sharon Davis-Murdoch - image credit)
Sharon Davis-Murdoch is a new member of the Order of Canada, honoured for her 'dedication to improving the health equity and inclusion of racialized communities in Nova Scotia.' (Submitted by Sharon Davis-Murdoch - image credit)

Sharon Davis-Murdoch wasn't surprised to get a call regarding the Order of Canada — she just didn't think it was about her.

The co-founder and co-president of the Health Association of African Canadians (HAAC) has worked for decades to eliminate systemic inequities in the health-care system.

But Davis-Murdoch of Dartmouth, N.S., assumed the recent call was about providing information or support for another nominee, which has happened many times before, she said.

She was "gobsmacked" when the man on the other end of the call said, "No, no, this is for you."

'A beautiful thing'

Davis-Murdoch was named as a member of the Order of Canada on Wednesday, among the 135 appointees announced by Gov. Gen. Mary Simon.

"I am overwhelmed," Davis-Murdoch told CBC News in a recent interview. "I am so humbled by this, but I'm also very grateful. It's a beautiful thing to feel recognized and supported in the work that one does."

She said a major step in shining a light on health inequities and injustices was building the HAAC in 2002 alongside other Nova Scotian women: Sue Edmonds, Yvonne Atwell, Josephine Etowa, and the late Fran Harper.

Davis-Murdoch said the five of them felt the need to bring important policy and research forward to build a Black health infrastructure in Canada.

The COVID-19 pandemic has only reinforced issues of inequity and injustice with the current one-size-fits-all approach to health care, she said, which is "the antithesis of my work over the last 40 years, because I understand the importance of culturally specific approaches."

The country's reality of anti-Black racism, and history of enslavement and segregation is "part and parcel" with the current systems, Davis-Murdoch said, so it's vital to do things differently.

She's tackled this recently as co-manager of the Association of Black Social Workers and HAAC's COVID-19 Response and Impact Initiative, which has helped create culturally specific African Nova Scotian vaccination clinics.

Across the province, Davis-Murdoch said they've also worked with partner agencies to connect people to everything from food packages and sanitation supplies, to how to receive mental health services that are culturally specific.

Family history of activism

Davis-Murdoch has been involved with social justice work as long as she can remember, a passion she shares with generations of her family.

She said her maternal grandparents were both "social justice champions" — her grandfather, a physician and civil rights leader in Bermuda, and her grandmother, the first Black physician to attend the University of Edinburgh, where they first met.

Born in the United Kingdom, Davis-Murdoch said she grew up in Bermuda where she was influenced by "very politically astute people" and had a Catholic education that emphasized service to community. She attended university in Canada and has lived in the country for the past 41 years.

"This is my home, but certainly I am the sum total of all of that," Davis-Murdoch said.

"I've always had what my grandfather and grandmother had, as well, which is what I call fire in the belly for justice."

Other appointees from N.S.

Eight other Nova Scotians were appointed to the Order of Canada on Wednesday. They include:

  • C. Céleste Johnston of Hunts Point for her foundational research in neonatal pain and further advancing the field as a mentor.

  • Frederick A. Leighton of Bear River for his contributions to veterinary medicine as a clinical pathologist and as an internationally renowned scholar specializing in wildlife disease.

  • Patricia Livingston of Halifax for her contributions to global health and anesthesia safety, and for her commitment to improving medical education in underserved communities around the world.

  • Mary Ruth Brooks of Halifax for being an internationally renowned scholar in the field of marine transportation, performance and supply chain management.

  • Lucille Harper of Antigonish for her longtime leadership of the Antigonish Women's Resource Centre and Sexual Assault Services Association, and for her ongoing activism against sexual violence.

  • Gerald Andrew Edward Lawrence of Halifax for tirelessly advocating for people with disabilities and for accessibility as a politician, radio host and community volunteer.

  • Allan S. MacDonald of Sydney for his pioneering innovations in the field of kidney, liver and pancreas transplantation, and for positively impacting the lives of patients, notably within Atlantic Canada.

  • Peter Vaughan of Halifax for his contributions to Canada's health-care system, and for his pioneering leadership in the establishment and advancement of digital health.

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.

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