Dr. Perry Kendall is a legend among reporters, policymakers and the public-health world.
One only need look at his office, with plaques, diplomas, an Order of B.C. and other awards covering every available space on the walls. All were well-earned during his lengthy tenure as B.C.’s provincial health officer (PHO).
Still, it’s not awards and accolades that British Columbians will remember most about Dr. Kendall’s work. They will remember the kind and sharp leader, a person whose philosophy meant digging deep into the most-divisive and thorny issues facing families and people each day. “I was able to successfully step into roles independently, and maintain a progressive approach to the hot topics like the overdose crisis, harm reduction and the creation of Insite in Vancouver in 2003,” Dr. Kendall said.
This ability did not come naturally. He laughs when recounting a reporter who called him during his first year as PHO, asking for an opinion on a policy. “Without checking on background, I told the reporter the policy was either really inane or really stupid. A few days later, a friend and colleague of mine called me up and said I must be taking this independent thing really seriously, because I was quoted as saying the health minister at the time was either really inane or really stupid! Fortunately, the minister had a sense of humour and never let my gaffe interfere with the professional relationship.”
That incident taught Dr. Kendall a few important things about managing his role, both within the Ministry of Health and with reporters. To this day, he is known for his careful, thoughtful and respectful treatment of reporters and he expects the same back. A straight shooter praised for his balanced approach, he can only recall one instance of requesting a story in the media be corrected, one that had him saying, incorrectly, that he was “advocating for the legalization of ecstasy.”
He had to set the record straight. “Given the headlines, I had to correct the story. What I did say was that I support having a conversation about potential regimes for all psycho-active substances, whereby regulated access could be considered.”
As Dr. Kendall reflects on his storied career, it’s surprising to hear it is not the big, splashy public health issues (of which there are many: the Ebola outbreak, radiation from Fukushima, severe acute respiratory syndrome [SARS], swine flu, and many more) that he is most proud of guiding. Humbly, Dr. Kendall points to the ground-breaking report, The Health and Well-Being of the Aboriginal People in B.C., that his office issued in 2002, which had a real role in helping create the first-of-its-kind First Nations Health Authority. “I have to say, looking back, I’m most proud of the recommendations and what our office was able to do. Former representative for children and youth Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond called the report, "the first meaningful report in B.C. toward closing health gaps for Aboriginal people.”
Dr. Kendall is leaving some big shoes to step into for his successor, Dr. Bonnie Henry. Dr. Henry, current deputy provincial health officer, is ready for the role. “I’m honoured to be able to take on the position left by Dr. Kendall, and blessed for having had the opportunity to work so closely with him. I’m even a bit emotional thinking about it, as we have been a pretty good team and it will be a big void without him,” said Dr. Henry.
But in the long run, she is gaining much more. “When Dr. Kendall called me to say he wasn’t ready to retire (time number 1, in 2015), I was overjoyed. There was so much I still needed to learn from him, I wasn’t ready for him to leave. We share the same philosophies about the role of the PHO and I just hope I can live up to the incredible standard he has set.” Now that the third time’s the charm for Dr. Kendall, Dr. Henry notes there may be some challenges, but some excellent growth opportunities too. “I also know that Dr. Kendall won’t be too far away and still willing to share his wisdom and sage advice,” Dr. Henry said.
What are Dr. Kendall’s expectations for Dr. Henry’s taking over the position? “She will take this job anywhere she wants!”
When asked why he didn’t manage to retire over a year ago and asked to come back, Dr. Kendall said, “I’ve always enjoyed working with a team of excellent people who are dedicated and committed. Together we’ve been able to hopefully influence policy in B.C. in a good way, and I just wasn’t done yet. This is the best gig in town!” That being said, Dr. Kendall’s last day in office is Jan. 31, 2018.
Health Minister Adrian Dix —
“In his almost 20 years as provincial health officer, Dr. Kendall has shown dedication and foresight in all areas of public health, including addressing the social determinants of health to leading large-scale public health responses. Dr. Kendall’s landmark report tackling the health inequities of First Nations and Indigenous health had a transformative effect, playing a role in the eventual creation of the First Nations Health Authority. We have trusted Dr. Kendall’s insight and leadership as he has guided the province through very significant public-health outbreaks and challenges affecting British Columbians that were national and global in reach. I am delighted that his successor Dr. Bonnie Henry will continue and expand his extraordinary record.”
Dr. John Blatherwick, former chief medical health officer —
“Dr. Kendall was a great asset to me as the medical health officer in Toronto. I was on the selection team for the new provincial health officer and told the rest of the committee, there is only one person who can do the job - Perry. I still have lunch regularly with Joy MacPhail, and she asks me all the time if Perry is still provincial health officer. He was her provincial health officer many, many years ago! He took bold moves when required. As I tell him every time I see him now, he failed retirement without even trying it!”
Dr. David Jones, former Canada chief public health officer at the Public Health Agency of Canada —
“It’s hard to believe Perry is actually retiring as PHO. He has had such a varied and impressive career. Perry, in every endeavour, brought wisdom and thoughtful solutions to issues. He had a particular concern for those on the margins, which must be the first priority of public health, and he was highly respected for his skill and integrity. While one could give many examples, I would highlight his work as provincial co-chair of the Public Health Network Council. In this, he was the key to successfully building and navigating an effective collaboration of provincial, territorial and federal governments in addressing a range of complex public-health problems and issues.
“Notable among these was the co-ordinated planning and response that supported Canada’s success in effectively stopping the H1N1 pandemic before Christmas 2009. The people of British Columbia and Canada are beneficiaries of his distinguished career.”
Dr. Evan Adams, chief medical officer, First Nations Health Authority –
“Dr. Kendall has been a committed and courageous advocate for bettering First Nations and Indigenous peoples' health and wellness in B.C. for many years. He is also a good friend and will be missed as a partner in the work to transform our health system. I wish him the very best in his retirement.”
Dr. Eric Young, retired B.C. deputy provincial health officer —
“British Columbia has had the good fortune of having Perry as its provincial health officer for the past 18 years. He has had a profound influence on the direction of public health provincially and nationally, through his leadership on issues that varied from communicable disease outbreaks to injury prevention to addiction to drugs.
“Always the voice of reason, he would deftly move from the clinical details to the big picture and express himself in a way that engaged and challenged those with whom he dealt, and inspired them to address issues boldly. He is leaving a legacy of a prodigious body of work through the PHO annual and special reports that addressed a wide array of key public issues. These include women’s health, child and youth health and well-being, HIV, gambling, alcohol, food, air and water quality, and motor vehicle collisions, among others.”