On the day Dr. Bonnie Henry was profiled by The New York Times as being “one of the most effective public health officials in the world,” I was making skirts for gerbils. My seven-year-old daughter was pet-sitting when the idea took hold, and while the act of transforming cupcake liners into gerbil skirts is an impressive feat, the profile of British Columbia’s tireless Provincial Health Officer shone a light on the contrast between our post-Mount-A lives.
While there have been dips and spikes — and spikes and dips — in the number of daily reported COVID-19 cases in BC, from the onset of the pandemic the unifying constant for the people of this province has been Dr. Henry. Plans are made and adjusted based on our shared desire to watch her briefings — a hush seems to fall over the province. She explains complex concepts in digestible terms. She merges science with compassion. This is a leader who will cry at the mic, thereby making it okay for us all to show vulnerability. She is soft-spoken yet powerful — her voice, the medical community’s Leonard Cohen: soothing, melodic. When she speaks, overwhelmingly we listen.
Right from the start, her three-pronged mantra — be kind, be calm, be safe — has resonated. There’s an authenticity to it. Homemade posters coloured by toddlers are taped in windows, while shops sell masks, mugs, pendants, and posters emblazoned with her famous six words — the rallying cry of Canada’s western-most province. When designer John Fluevog released his limited-edition “Dr. Henry” shoes, complete with catchphrase stamped in the footstock, they sold out faster than you could say: “2020’s must-have piece.”
“She became an overnight star,” says alumna Joan Peggs (’68) of Victoria, BC. “Everyone knows who she is. Everyone is talking about her.”
Arguably, the “overnight” part has been three decades in the making. A smattering of her experience includes working with the World Health Organization/UNICEF polio eradication program in Pakistan and helping control Uganda’s Ebola outbreak. She was the operational lead during the SARS outbreak in Toronto and was involved in co-ordinating medical safeguards for the 2010 Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games in Vancouver.
But the “star” part? Indisputable.
As someone who chose a career in the sciences, not the spotlight, hers is a unique brand of celebrity — that which grew from a passion for helping people.
“I recognize I am the face of a whole team of people who are doing the work, and that’s a big responsibility,” she says. “I don’t lose sight of that.”
When we catch up on Zoom — the pandemic communications vehicle of choice — she humours me by posing for a Zoom selfie, a first for us both but an opportunity I’m not willing to let pass. This is a hero of our times — hers is a name my daughters will grow up remembering — and a selfie over Zoom seems to capture the essence of this global chapter.
She understands the days of what she calls “blissful obscurity” are over, at least for the time being. From fan pages on social media to honorary degrees from places of higher learning, in British Columbia “Bonnie-Mania” is alive and well. When my own friends adopted a canine pal, no one batted an eye when they called her “Dog-tor Bonnie”. And recently, Dr. Bonnie (the human version) was ceremoniously presented by the Gitxsan with a new First Nations’ name herself — Gyatsit sa ap dii’m — which means “one who is calm among us.”
“Calm” is exactly how professor emeritus of physics, Dr. Robert Hawkes (’72, ’78), sees her.
“Living through a pandemic as a senior with some health issues is scary,” Hawkes says from his home in James Bay on Vancouver Island. “From her first COVID briefing to her most recent, Dr. Henry has — while not minimizing the seriousness of the situation — calmly expressed confidence that by being careful, we can and will get through this.”
While she brings peace to the masses, the question is, however: What brings peace to her? Well, dark chocolate helps. That, and the support of her three sisters — all Allisonians. Not to mention a network of close women friends, many of whom she met in the 1980s at a special little university nestled amongst the Tantramar Marshes.
As a military family, her three years at Mount Allison, she tells me, were a rarity — to be in one place for so long.
“I just loved it. It was an environment where you were intellectually stimulated and you could do really neat things. I played field hockey. I played rugby. I played basketball,” she says. “Mount A was small enough that you could meet a variety of people and have interactions with professors in a way that you don’t in many other places. I was always into science but we also had access to the arts — there was so much art and literature.”
But it wasn’t all athletics and academics, of course. She laughs as she remembers evenings in Palmer Hall, making Kraft Dinner with friends.
As her sister Sarah’s (’94) own daughter applies for 2021 admission, contributing to the growing legacy of Henry women, the gift “Aunt Bonnie” has given young girls nationwide is too great to measure. To see a woman lead with quiet confidence, in an age when public figures often spend hours tweeting insults, is a breath of fresh air. A reminder of what women are capable of.
As CBC’s Ian Hanomansing (’83, LLD '03) says: “In more than 30 years as a journalist, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a public official who has a knowledge of the scientific evidence, the expertise in the public health, the patience to explain it all so succinctly, and who, on top of it all, possesses the good judgement she does — those four things. It’s powerful.”
A current marketing campaign for Vancouver’s Science World depicts the retro elementary class photo of a young Dr. Henry, accompanied by the headline: “The world needs more nerds.” When I ask her about it, she takes the opportunity to speak directly to girls.
“I want them to know it’s okay to be smart,” she says. “You can be strong and still be feminine. You have a right to speak up, to ask questions, and to give answers. You have a right to take up your space.”
When we talk about what specifically she would say to Allisonians worldwide to inspire resilience during these times, she is thoughtful for a moment.
“We have an opportunity to build back — more just and more kind,” she says. “Words matter. How we approach things matters. We need to be brave about calling out racist acts, about calling out inequities, about supporting each other. This pandemic is going to define 2020. But it’s not going to define us.”
In large part, we owe that to her — our anchor in the storm.
With the recent launch of a vegan marinade named in her honour (finger-licking not recommended during COVID times, obviously), it’s safe to say the public continues to express gratitude in creative ways, and rightfully so. Who knows? One day, there just may be a line of Dr. Henry-branded skirts for gerbils. I happen to know a seven-year-old girl who, thanks to a special mentor, feels ready to take up space.
Mary-Jo Dionne is a nationally-acclaimed writer, speaker, and gerbil skirt designer. She lives in Vancouver, BC. Find out more: https://maryjodionne.com/
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