Jun 21, 2024

Chair's message: Lessons from Alice

Chair's Message, About DFCM
Dr. Danielle Martin speaking
Welcome address from the 2024 DFCM Conference

Dear Colleagues,

This month, I had the honour of addressing the MD class of 2024 at their convocation ceremony. For graduates, this occasion celebrates the completion of a significant chapter in a lifelong story. So, as we mark the end of another academic year and our residents celebrate the completion of residency, I would like to share it with you also.


Convocation address

Chancellor Patten, Vice-President and Provost Young, family and friends of the graduates and most importantly, the class of 2024.


Let me add my voice to the chorus of joy all around you in this room today. What a thrill it is to have this opportunity to celebrate the completion of this chapter of your life’s story.

And what a chapter it has been for you. Many of you began these studies in a global pandemic, sharpened your skills through the twists and turns of remote learning and ever-changing rules and regulations, and now are emerging into this day as controversy swirls around university campuses everywhere, including our own, in response to conflict and war. The story of today is many things. It is deeply personal for each of you as you receive your degree at one of the best universities in the world, but it is also much bigger than any of us.  

This is true of most stories. Their power is in both the particular and the universal. This is what Dr. Ian McWhinney, one of the founders of family medicine, called the difference between the map and the territory.

McWhinney said, and I quote:

“We can get to know a territory by studying the map, which is made by abstracting certain features and ignoring others. The map helps us to find our way, but knowing the territory from the map is not the same as knowing it by dwelling in it. […] We cannot experience the beauty or the terror of a landscape by reading the map.”

Whether you are here today to celebrate the completion of your MD, your Masters Degree, your PhD, or some terrifying combination of those things, you will rely not just on science and evidence–the maps that help us to build health–but also on the territory–the stories of individual people–to guide you.

Stories matter. One of Canada’s great storytellers, Alice Munro, died just last month. She was awarded the Nobel prize for literature in 2013, and is widely viewed as the greatest writer of short stories of all time. Despite its universal resonance, much of her work depicted life in small town Ontario, where she grew up.

In Stockholm, shortly after the Nobel Prize ceremony, there was a night at the Stockholm Theatre where actors read excerpts from Alice Munro stories. It was packed. At the break, Alice’s editor a young Swedish woman was asked why she liked Alice’s work–Alice who was, after all, a writer from rural Canada far removed from the Swedish capital.

Her response was, “Because she makes me wonder, how does she know how I feel?”

Alice Munro could write a story set in a very particular time and place yet make you feel that she could see you–your life circumstances, your experiences, your sorrow. By being very, very specific, she could tap into the universal.

I’m not a writer. But as a family doctor, to me, this is the core of my job. To find what is universal in a person’s story–the pattern of symptoms and observations that allow me to offer a diagnosis and treatment, the ability to draw on data and the experiences of others while at the same time seeing what is so particular about that individual person that they feel seen and accompanied.

The power of science, when appropriately applied, is in recognizing that a lump feels more like a cyst than a cancer; that the patient’s thirst is better addressed with insulin than with water; that the facial twitch is a side effect of a drug, not an indication for another drug.

But science cannot tell you what it feels like to say to a person you have known for decades, “whatever this is, I will walk with you through it. You are not alone."

I have had the gift of that experience, and I wish it for you. Not all of you will be family doctors. But you all need one, and so do the people you love. A person to help you decipher the map, and to walk with you through the territory.

We are all on a journey, a journey to make sense of the world around us and our place within it. That journey is not always smooth or linear, but this period of your life has given you what you may not realize are treasures you can use to help you find your way. Indeed, each of you carries in your arms today so many treasures I see you practically staggering under their beautiful weight. Your incredible education, of course. The love of the people who are here with you today and who supported you through your education. Your capacity to name injustice and work against it. Your willingness to work alongside one another, even when you disagree. And, I hope, your ability to see what is universal while also celebrating what is particular.

Be careful not to put those treasures aside. Alice wrote about this in her short story collection, Runaway. She says:

"Few people, very few, have a treasure, and if you do you must hang onto it. You must not let yourself be waylaid, and have it taken from you.”

You hold treasures in your arms today.  Do not save them for later. Do not discard them. Instead, use them every day to help you read the map and walk with others through the landscape ahead.