Interview with Jocelyne Bernier
conducted by Claudette Lambert
Last December, Jocelyne Bernier, a community researcher and health care equality activist in Montreal, received the 2013 3M Health Leadership Award from Health Nexus. The award recognizes leaders who have made a major difference in the health and well-being of their community.
This national award, given out by 3M Canada and Health Nexus, honours individuals who inspire change in their community and who have made a significant contribution to community health.
Claudette Lambert: This award is providing wonderful recognition for your work just as you complete your mandate as coordinator of the Chair in Community Approaches and Health Inequalities at the Université de Montréal.
Jocelyne Bernier: I established this Chair with the Chairholder Louise Potvin. It focuses on community development and brings together institutional partners like the City of Montreal, United Way, the Public Health Branch and local inter-sectoral roundtables, which number approximately thirty in Montreal: Centre-Sud, Hochelaga-Maisonneuve, Saint-Michel, Montreal North, etc.
I would like to talk a bit about your career. You started out as a researcher, but you are a sociologist?
J. B.: Yes, I studied at the Université Laval, and my first job was with the study commission on laity in the Church led by Fernand Dumont. When I was younger, Dumont’s teaching had really influenced my thinking. I conducted research for the Dumont Commission on social organizations with ties to the Church in Lower St-Lawrence parishes.
What kind of ties to the church?
J. B.: There was the Bureau d’aménagement de l’Est du Québec (eastern Quebec planning office), which took a slightly soviet, top-down approach to planning. It would decide to shut down a village, for example. At the time, when a parish was poor, in a remote area, or lacked local businesses, people were displaced. That was the approach to planning back then. But people refused, because they were attached to their community. With the support of their community and clergy, some villages resisted, while others created logging cooperatives, grassroots collective development initiatives, to fight against top-down planning. I have always been inspired by this type of experience, where people take things into their own hands even when they have limited means and feel excluded from decision-making.
Did they have a big influence your career choice?
J. B.: I was already absorbed with social issues. I was interested in scientific research, yes, but I ultimately chose sociology. It was the height of the Quiet Revolution…
Everything seemed possible!
J. B.: For me, those initiatives were life lessons. I then worked at the Université de Montréal on labour training programs, but this turned out to be a big disappointment, because these programs were more about financing businesses than helping people who needed to find employment or train for better-quality jobs. So I decided to quit research and go to work for the public daycare network that had just begun to grow.
That’s a fairly radical switch! Why public daycares?
J. B.: I come from a family where my father had a grade 6 education. He started working on ships when he was 16. My brothers finished their cours classique, but when I got to grade 7, I was asked: “Do you want to be a schoolteacher or a nurse?” Jokingly, and because my mother was the daughter of the village doctor, I said: “Never mind nurse, I want to be a doctor.” And my parents said: “Oh, we never imagined that.” My parents were open-minded, so I completed my cours classique, which was the normal path to university. I tell this story because when I decided to quit research to work for the public daycare network, these daycares represented a tool that gave women access to the workforce. It was the 1970s. My activism focused a lot around women’s issues.
The feminist movement was very vibrant, very militant at the time.
J. B.: Yes, there were a lot of issues…Of course, the whole issue of abortion, and in legal trials, women never even sat on juries. So I got involved with the daycare network, which seemed to me the best way to help women escape poverty, find jobs, and raise a family with dignity. There weren’t as many single-parent families at the time, but domestic situations were more unstable. At Pointe-Saint-Charles, where I worked, I saw a lot of single mothers with low-paying jobs who wanted to support themselves and give their children a future. That’s how I went back to working in the field.
And by working in the field one can enact social change!
J. B.: I felt like research was good at labelling things, but never really reached the decision-makers. So, it was important to act. And to me, acting meant going back into practice to develop projects. Following my work in daycares, I arrived at the Pointe-Saint-Charles community clinic, which was one of the forerunners of the local community services centres (CLSC). The clinic started in 1967 and the first CLSCs dated from 1974. The community developed a number of social innovations. At that time, there were public clinics throughout Montreal’s poorer downtown neighbourhoods. The Point-Claire-Charles clinic was created by doctors from McGill University, but they reported to a board of directors made up exclusively of citizens. People would come for help with health and social problems. Again, I saw there was a limit to what an individual could accomplish, so I worked to develop group interventions. A group for teenage mothers, a youth coffee house, which we called the “café sans mur” (cafe without walls) – because at first we didn’t have a location – which became the Paradoxe cafe, a youth rehabilitation organization. The young mothers group found its footing. The older mothers set up a kind of mentorship and support system that led to a really interesting kind of development. These women, who at 20 years old already had three children, eventually became caregivers, a bit like a family caregiver, which is another issue that I became involved with. So I became a community organizer, working more in community development.
Your background as a researcher allowed you to set parameters to guide action.
J. B.: To move in the right direction, I had to reflect on the actions we’d already taken, identify their limits and figure out how to go beyond them. Those kind of organizations always experience growing pains, so I teamed up with Lorraine Guay, another prominent activist, and we took over the clinic with the board of directors. I was asked to manage the clinic and I stayed in that position for ten years. During that time, the boards of directors of the CLSCs underwent a transformation, with fewer and fewer places for citizens. I realized that this clinic was a community institution, in a neighbourhood that had benefitted from the work of the first community organizers, who were from the Church. Since the 1960s, it had enjoyed a long tradition of self-management and autonomy that still endures. The minister wanted to force integration on us. So we mobilized people, because I believed that this organization, which had been around since 1967 and was almost 27 years old, was a valuable development tool for the community, a real tool for autonomy.
It sort of belonged to the people and they had a certain degree of control over it.
J. B.: It was also a tool for empowerment. The board of directors included people on social assistance, and we faced enormous challenges, because we had to negotiate collective agreements with professionals. Try to imagine being on social assistance and negotiating the salary of a nurse who is earning twice or three times your annual income… We had to do a lot of educating, constantly train people, take a lot of time to explain the issues and help people make decisions. Staff hiring was done by professionals who would assess skills, but people from the community also had input with respect to values. The board of directors was an incredible public education tool. And with each reform to the health care system, the clinic came under threat, but it survived. Soon it will celebrate its 50th anniversary. And its board of directors is still made up of community members. So for me, that had a big impact on my career.
But you changed course again in 1997!
J. B.: I gave myself ten years! When you’re in the middle of the action, it’s hard to step back and take a critical look at what you’re doing. So I decided to go back to research and take time to reflect and try something new. I did ad hoc research for the United Way on projects like 1,2,3 Go, on child development, and I wound up at the Women’s Health Centre. You might say I came full circle, back to where I started … I worked a lot on family caregiver issues. These are mostly women caught between two generations, their parents and their children. I also worked with a Canadian network on the health care system’s impact on women.
In 2001, the Centre closed and I was hired by the Chair in Community Approaches and Health Inequalities. But this centre had to be built from scratch. I suggested that we get practitioners involved in our work and form research partnerships. We worked on local development issues and health inequality. For example, how is it that life expectancy in Saint-Henri is so different from that in Westmount, when they’re only one or two kilometres apart? And it’s quite the gap! Eight years! We needed to examine health factors, genetic factors, lifestyle, and community resources. The poorer you are, the more important it is to have local resources. This issue resonated with me too. Then we got together with the thirty neighbourhood roundtables to get them interested in the research program, and we also approached the City of Montreal, the United Way, the Public Health Branch… I formed a partnership and we developed research questions so we could document our findings systematically. This Chair was funded for ten years, until 2011. I then thought I would take my retirement, but I was asked to come on board a Canada Research Chair, which bears the same name. And that was my final move.
Does this Canada Research Chair have an impact outside the country?
J. B.: We have developed projects with Brazil, I worked with the Réseau Francophone International pour la Promotion de la santé [international French-language health promotion network] to develop tools for Francophone Africa to combat health inequality, which are available on the Web and elsewhere. We collaborate fairly closely with the International Union for Health Promotion and Education, which is active in Latin America, Africa and Europe.
How would you define the role of a community leader?
J. B.: A leader has to listen to people, understand their potential, and bring together their different strengths to open up new opportunities. I’m not the kind of leader who takes centre stage. Of course, I will intervene in certain situations, when a project needs be defended and developed, but in all my battles, I have tried to empower others. You know, when you haven’t been to university, you learn by experience, and you gain confidence through practice. Right now, I’m involved in community urban planning. Neighbourhood intervention is not easy. You have to engage in negotiations, sometimes meeting the mayor and various city employees who are responsible for specific files that affect quality of life, such as public transit, parks and green space, road safety, access to grocery stores and local services.
Anything that affects people’s daily lives!
J. B.: People with limited resources rely more heavily on local services. They use the neighbourhood library or sports centre, but they don’t go to the Bell Centre or the Grande Bibliothèque. Income gaps also make a difference when it comes to life expectancy.
When community stakeholders clash with mega projects, two different philosophies butt heads. One is focused on progress, profits, efficiency, while the other is concerned with quality of life. Is it possible to find a common language?
J. B.: The two points of view ought to converge, but that rarely happens. In Pointe-Saint-Charles, we led a highly-publicized fight against the casino’s relocation. Sometimes, developers present us with shiny, nice-looking projects, but they’re not always based on very thorough analyzes. The casino is a good example. They talked about putting Montreal on the international stage and bringing in foreign tourists, but a closer look revealed that the casino mostly attracted Quebecers. We all know that gambling can be a problem, primarily for families and the poor. They may have removed video lottery terminals from bars, but they wanted to bring the casino downtown, right into a poor neighbourhood. We worked on this issue with the Chinese community, which was very affected by gambling. We analyzed the project but we also mobilized the population. We circulated petitions and sought external support. The Montreal Public Health Branch released a report on traffic issues and rising housing costs. Often, projects planned from the top-down don’t take into account the local impact. Sometimes, we clash. In the case of the casino, we clashed.
It is very political, what you do…
J. B.: We don’t have a choice, politics dominate our lives. They influence development. And you know, in health, to develop sound public policies you have to act on every front: nurturing favorable conditions, supporting community activism and changing the way the health system is organized to include intersectorality. The people need to have their say.
Another negative example: the development of the Griffintown district in south-west Montreal. They forgot to reserve land for a school and parks. The ward now has to buy land at a very high price to provide these basic services. If the local population had been involved, it’s likely these issues would have been raised much sooner.
So on the one hand, we need the developers, investors, political leaders and creators, but we also need the grassroots to adjust the momentum to meet the real needs of the population.
J. B.: Top-down and grassroots stakeholders have to negotiate together in developing communities, if we want people who live in the city or a neighbourhood to bring their vision and contribute to a given project.
You have been a researcher, practitioner, volunteer, activist; so many different roles in your career, but they are all related. What is your perspective as you look back on your career?
J. B.: I think that one can never effect social change by working alone. I am interested primarily in society, in communities, but we need inspiring leaders at the forefront. It’s important to motivate the population, or else people get excluded. I have developed this vision over time. We have to reject inequality, and then transform this inequality. This is a big challenge for a society. It’s important to take a holistic approach and work with multiple stakeholders. Right now I’m chairing the board of directors of an organization called Communagir. I’m excited by the fact that it supports collective processes throughout Quebec — in Gaspé and the North Shore ― it helps communities work with elected officials and public servants.
And so you’re off to fight another battle!
J. B.: It’s all part of a continuum. It is important to “work with”, and not to “work for.” “Working with” is really the focus of community development.
Human beings first!
J. B.: Yes, and life lived in solidarity. We’re not alone. Humans evolved because we looked after each other. If you go back far in our history, it was impossible for any isolated individual to survive. Communities can be constraining, but they also hold great potential. We need to learn how to use communities to ensure people’s development.
Note: Health Nexus is a non-profit organization that increases communities’ capacity for health promotion by fostering inclusion, early child development and chronic disease prevention. Over the last 25 years we have helped health services workers and health promotion organizations develop and implement strategies to improve the health of their communities and ease the demand on health care and social services.