Adel Panahi, Director of Health, Métis Nation-Saskatchewan
Adel Panahi, Director of Health, Métis Nation-Saskatchewan

Advancing health equity in Saskatchewan

Adel Panahi is currently the Director of Health at Métis Nation-Saskatchewan, the governing body representing the approximately 80,000 Métis people living in the province, where he oversees healthcare project management, community relations, and health policy research.

Adel Panahi is currently the Director of Health at Métis Nation-Saskatchewan, the governing body representing the approximately 80,000 Métis people living in the province, where he oversees healthcare project management, community relations, and health policy research. Originally from Iran, he has nearly 20 years of experience in writing and coordinating policies and programs in the public sector and non-profit organizations. He has developed a profound understanding of the Canadian public policy environment and Indigenous health since graduating from Johnson Shoyama Graduate School (JSGS) in 2013.

Opening a New Chapter

After earning his Master’s degree in Political Science and Government in 2003 from Imam Sadiq University in Tehran, Adel immediately set out to apply his passion for public administration and interest in policymaking. Over the next eight years, Adel held numerous roles within the Iranian public service, including Associate Director of Social Services in the Ministry of Welfare and Social Security. These experiences led him to realize that he needed a greater understanding of the practical realities of policymaking in order to make the kind of impact he desired.

“I saw that I needed to expand my skills to be more effective in communicating with and supporting the needs of my political leaders. It is not just political philosophy or sociology; one must know how to do the real work of analyzing and writing policy.”

With this goal firmly in hand, Adel began researching policy programs, searching for a school that would offer him the best preparation and opportunities to thrive in the modern policymaking landscape. Although there were many public administration programs available in Iran, his previous research on and personal interest in Canadian government led him to investigate public policy programs here. Ultimately, he chose to pursue the Master of Public Administration program at JSGS. Adel was drawn to how the school prioritized building necessary competencies through extensive opportunities to practice everyday policymaking skills and tasks, from writing policy briefs to communicating effectively as part of a team.

Entering the school, language barriers threatened to present a significant early obstacle. JSGS staff and faculty members alike, however, were patient and eager to offer him assistance. Adel remarked on how welcome he felt, recalling that “the school was so helpful” in identifying his needs and subsequently offering him guidance and in-school support.

In addition to being provided with a scholarship for English language training and enjoying helpful general writing support at the school, Adel appreciated how JSGS faculty members would take time to understand where he felt confused and offer him extended office hour opportunities. The support he received from the university encouraged him to stay in Saskatchewan and seek to “give back” to the province upon his graduation in 2013.

Embracing his Passion

While speaking about his journey from graduating with his first Master’s degree in Iran to the position he stands in today, Adel credited his rapid career progression to holding and pursuing a clear set of personal goals and objectives.

After graduating from JSGS, he searched for chances to fulfill his goal of working in and with communities to understand their concerns and actively contribute to their betterment. Opportunities to do so unfolded as he transitioned from working with the University of Saskatchewan’s Office of Institutional Planning and Assessment to serving as a Community Action Coordinator for the Saskatchewan Alliance for Youth and Community Well-Being. He later returned to the University of Saskatchewan to work with the Department of Community Health and Epidemiology, before ultimately joining the Government of Métis Nation-Saskatchewan (MN-S) as the Director of Health in 2018.

According to Adel, the key to his employment success was demonstrating the rare combination of practical skills and formal knowledge he had gained through the MPA program.

“Showing that you know the policy, you know the process, you know how to analyze and evaluate existing policy and implement different policies is what sets you apart from others.”

The importance Adel placed on working with an organization that sought to resist and repair social injustices guided his career decision-making. Most notably, this commitment invigorated him to pursue his work with MN-S. When he first joined the government, he learned that most Métis people in Saskatchewan lacked access to important healthcare services ranging from medical transportation to mental health support. Worse still, many such issues went largely unspoken in the province.

As MN-S Director of Health, this discovery led Adel to prioritize travelling the province to gain a first-hand understanding of the socioeconomic and health challenges that remote Métis communities face. On one such endeavour, he met an elder who lacked the means to visit an optometrist and had been forced to struggle with wearing her sister’s old glasses. This, among many other similar first-hand experiences, motivated him to investigate and develop a first-of-its-kind Elder Care program for which he hopes to secure federal government funding to implement.

Providing care to remote communities, however, is just one of many challenges Adel faces in providing better and more accessible health services for Métis people in Saskatchewan. As he explained, “Métis people face many of the same challenges as other Indigenous peoples in Canada, while facing further disadvantage by not being part of the federal First Nations and Inuit Health branch.” This is where he is working to change conversations around Indigenous health.

On the one hand, he faces the challenge of “bringing governments up to speed” on Indigenous services and the need to extend them to Métis people, which he believes must be seen as a priority rather than an afterthought. On the other hand, he faces the challenge of promoting Indigenous self-determination and self-government.

“These are complex issues, but they hold the key to decisive progress.”

In his time with MN-S, Adel has met these challenges on a daily basis, as well as representing Métis interests before Indigenous Services Canada and the House of Commons. Under his leadership, MN-S responded to the COVID-19 pandemic by successfully coordinating its own community-directed vaccination initiatives while supporting federal and provincial vaccination efforts, proving the organization’s capability and value. For Adel, the messages of gratitude he receives from community members for his work make facing such difficulties well worth the effort.

Additionally, Adel is encouraged by the progress he has made in bringing community and government stakeholders together to engage in “participatory policymaking” on provincial health policies.

“Since [joining MN-S in] 2018, I’ve seen the change. I’ve seen new strategies come to the table at the provincial government, seen Saskatchewan Cancer Agency develop an Indigenous cultural responsiveness framework—something other health authorities and agencies are now doing.”

Guided by the lessons he gained at JSGS, Adel has brought attention to and taken direct action against the heightened cancer mortality rates of Métis people in Saskatchewan, including implementing new healthcare data-sharing agreements and accessibility supports that benefited over 5,000 medical appointments over the past two years. Ultimately, however, it is seeing people believe in MN-S and the health services it provides that are most meaningful.

“The trust I have built between the provincial government, federal government, and local stakeholders and MN-S is something I am particularly proud of.”

Reflecting on the Past, Looking to the Future

Looking back on his time in the JSGS MPA program, Adel appreciates how it offered extensive practical opportunities to practice writing policy, as well as doing so in a collaborative setting that facilitated the development of applicable teamwork skills.

“There were lots of small workshops [and other opportunities] to practice how to write a policy brief, report to a minister, and so on,” all of which helped to ground the more theory- and process-related learning in his mind.

One area that he felt deserved more attention, and which he is happy to hear the JSGS is actively placing a greater focus on, is Indigenous government and society. Adel pointed out that most MPA graduates will go on to interact with Indigenous governments, even if they do not engage as directly or frequently as he does.

“A better understanding of the Indigenous landscape—in terms of health, housing, justice, rights, and so many other areas—will help [all JSGS graduates] greatly in their future careers.”

To current and future JSGS students, Adel believes the best general career advice is simply to “know where you are going.” He encourages students to have a clear set of personal goals, drive to develop practical skills that are marketable to employers, and commitment to researching opportunities. With these characteristics, he moved across the world and became the Director of Health for Métis Nation-Saskatchewan less than eight years later.

Looking to his own future at MN-S, Adel’s objectives are firmly set on advancing health equity in Saskatchewan and “closing the health gaps between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples.” He dreams of witnessing the development of a Métis health authority in the province, such that Métis people will be able to run their own hospitals and health insurance.