Meet Dr. Kona Williams; Canada’s First Indigenous Forensic Pathologist

Dr. Kona Williams is the first Indigenous person in Canada to become a Forensic Pathologist. She works at Health Sciences North in Sudbury. PHOTO / LEN GILLIS / Northern Ontario Medical Journal 2019

By JASON TURNBULL

Special to NOMJ

Dr. Kona Williams’ entire professional life revolves around death. As a Forensic Pathologist, and the first Indigenous person to hold that title in Canada, she spends more time in a morgue looking at dead bodies than many of us would ever want to. But, she beams with a radiant smile and a positive energy that’s almost infectious.

“This was fun,” she said, as she sat in her office scrolling through images from a power point presentation she delivered to students at Dawson College in Montreal recently. “This was where I got to go play at a mock airplane disaster at Pearson Airport.” It’s a bi-annual event for forensic investigators.

Fun and death don’t usually go together, but you really can’t assume anything when it comes to Dr. Kona Williams. She’s a second degree black belt in Karate. She drives a motorcycle. “But I drive it like a grandma, because I’ve seen so many fatalities.”

Dr. Williams’ mother is Mohawk from Kahnawake, near Montreal and her father is Cree from the Peguis First Nation in Manitoba. He is a residential school survivor, a Presbyterian Minister, and was also one of the first Indigenous people to work for the Department of Indian Affairs. Because of her father’s job, the family was constantly moving every few years with stops in Edmonton, Regina, Ottawa and Halifax.

Serendipity Prevails

Dr. Williams attended Medical School at the University of Ottawa. She didn’t know what discipline to pursue, but that all changed in her first month following a lecture from a forensic pathologist. That lecture lead to an impromptu morgue tour. “I walked in thinking I’d only be seeing the room, but as I got around the corner, there were three autopsies under way.”

Her shock and surprise quickly turned to fascination. “After leaving the morgue, I went to the cafeteria with the chief resident. We spoke about what I had just saw,  as I inhaled a plate of spaghetti. He just looked at me and said ‘you’ll be fine. You might have a career at this.”

Dr. Wiliams has been thriving as a forensic pathologist in Canada. She completed her residency in Ottawa, and moved to Toronto in 2014 for a fellowship in pathology. In 2016 she was appointed a forensic pathologist at one of the most extensive forensic science facilities in North America, the Centre of Forensic Sciences in Ontario. Last year, when a job opened up at Health Sciences North, she jumped at the chance to work at an academic health sciences centre, and live in an affordable city, on lake, closer to nature.

You would be hard pressed to find someone more passionate about their profession. For Dr. Williams, the job provides so many opportunities to learn and discover. “A dead person has something to say. It just takes the right training to understand it. Getting to the truth of how someone died can be challenging and fascinating. I realize there are families waiting for answers and giving them the truth about the death of their loved ones is often very comforting and helps with the grieving process.”

Performing autopsies can be “exhilarating” especially when she is able to bust through a preconceived notion by investigators, and prove someone was murdered. Kona said this happens from time to time and when it does, “your heart just kind of stops for a second.”

“I can’t wait to not be the only one.”

As the only indigenous person in her field, Dr. Williams said she tries to educate her colleagues and break down stereotypes about First Nations people.

“This country has a really bad history with not treating indigenous people properly,” she said. “People seem to think that this happened 200 years ago, and it’s done and over with, but I’m trying to get people to understand the reality that it is still happening. It’s still very much alive for me. My father went to residential schools, and he’s not 200 years old.”

Dr. Williams said forensic pathologists can play an important part in helping to close gaps in the system for the Indigenous community, but more First Nations people are needed in the field. “Without the background, it can be easy to make judgements on the surface. So as a forensic pathologist, you have that authority, from all that education to say, look, you guys really need to listen and do something about this.”

And she won’t be the only Indigenous Forensic Pathologist in Canada for long. “There are a few coming through the pipeline, which is good. There’s one who’s going through medical school right now. And there are a few who are in pathology residency,” Dr. Williams said with a smile. “So, they’re coming.”

Jason Turnbull is a Corporate Communications Specialist at Health Sciences North in Sudbury.

 

Filed in: Education, Featured, First Nations, News

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