Life experience nurtured in Dr. Rebekah Jacques a moral sensibility that inspires her work as a forensic pathologist, researcher and social advocate. Grounded in her Métis culture and surrounded by nature, she seeks truth and fairness to improve the lives and legacies of her patients, their families and children in the foster care system
By Jennifer Párraga, BA’93
Upon receiving admission to university, resident alumna Dr. Rebekah Jacques says she finally felt a sense of acceptance and belonging. Her undergraduate experience taught her that institutions can radically change peoples’ lives and proved to her that a life she had hoped for was possible.
“Feeling accepted for the first time, I realized that applying to medical school was achievable and no one could deny me that dream,” she said.
Jacques was raised in Blind River, a small town on the North Channel of Lake Huron. Growing up she found joy in reading. Books served as an escape, and it was at her local public library where she discovered forensic pathology and began to focus on it as a future career.
“Social accountability is in my DNA. Because of my experiences growing up, I became a morally sensitive person who is passionate about reducing barriers for people.”
— Dr. Rebekah Jacques
As an Indigenous child living in foster and adoptive homes, she experienced and witnessed many injustices. Today, she is dedicated to constructively addressing these injustices.
“Social accountability is in my DNA,” she said. “Because of my experiences growing up, I became a morally sensitive person who is passionate about reducing barriers for people.”
It’s why she became involved with the Child Welfare Political Action Committee (Child Welfare PAC), a federally incorporated not-for-profit that advocates for a progressive child welfare system.
Hearing about the work the organization was planning on doing, Jacques reached out to the founder, Jane Kovarikova, to become involved.
To date, they have secured more than 210 tuition-free spots for former foster children, including 35 at Western University, and the remainder at 14 other institutions in five provinces across the country.
Envisioning a time where a child welfare system exists to ensure that every youth has a bright future, Child Welfare PAC also has goals focused on privacy rights, mental health and wellness and evidence-based policy making.
Jacques is a member of the advisory board and is proud of what they have achieved to date. But she believes there is so much more to do, especially around privacy rights – which unjustly put former foster children at risk in countless ways. She also hopes to see more achieved in the area of mental health.
“The rate of post-traumatic stress disorder for foster children is double that of veterans, and yet it’s not even part of the discussion,” she said. “We need our social work and government programs to be more aware of the lived experiences of foster children and be better able to support them using evidence-based policies.”
Well into her training as a forensic pathologist, Jacques became interested in bioethics, aware of the limitations of the field. Although a well-established area of research in clinical medicine, very little was focused on the practice of medicine beyond life and the unique issues that arise in death investigation.
For Jacques, there was no shortage of moral questions arising, including many around the value of an autopsy and tension that can arise between the state and families when autopsies of loved ones are suggested.
“This caused moral distress or moral residue for me and it kept me up at night,” she said.
Her research is focused on answering those questions. It’s also forming the foundation of death investigation bioethics research, a new sub-discipline in bioethics. She hopes to create a body of work that other forensic pathologists, coroners and medical examiners can use when dealing with tough ethical questions in their own work. She has also dedicated a chapter to death investigation bioethics in a book she is currently writing on forensic pathology.
“I have yet to see a forensic pathology book that incorporates metaethics – thinking about ethical theories and how they can be applied to death investigation – so this is very important to the field of forensic pathology.”
Feeling a tremendous sense of duty to those who have died and their families, Jacques quickly accepted an invitation to author an autopsy guideline for death amongst seniors as a result of infectious disease breakouts in long-term care homes.
The guideline was a recommendation following the Public Inquiry into the Safety and Security of Residents in the Long-term Care Homes System, precipitated by the killing of eight residents and the attempted murder of many others in long-term care facilities in Ontario within a nine-year period. The guide considers indicators of elder abuse and neglect and has since been implemented for review and use.
In addition to pursuing her own research, Jacques serves as a member of the Tri-agencies’ Research Reference Group for the Appropriate Review of Indigenous Research. Their role is to provide advice and guidance on the development and implementation of culturally appropriate review approaches and practices for research conducted by and with First Nations, Inuit and Métis Peoples. Jacques is one of 18 members who represent First Nations, Inuit, and Métis Peoples including northern, urban, and on-reserve realities, gender equity and geographic locations.
Jacques’ passion and dedication to reducing barriers has led her to accepting roles as the inaugural Equity Diversity and Inclusion Ambassador with her home department, Pathology and Laboratory Medicine, and the Equity and Diversity Lead for the School’s Doctor of Medicine Program.
“Everything I do is grounded in my childhood and my Métis culture,” she said. “My interest in children and youth is because of how my experiences in foster care, my interest in seniors can be traced back to an elderly relative that died in the setting of elder abuse and is linked to the respect we have for elders in Indigenous culture, and I layer that with a bioethics lens.”
Work serves as a never-ending energy source for Jacques.
“I love what I do,” she said. “What could be more energizing than reducing barriers for others, using the autopsy to discover the truth about how someone died as a factual basis for counselling surviving relatives or creating a new area of bioethics? It restores me and energizes me.”
She cherishes the Métis teachings on balancing mental, physical, psychological and spiritual health that help her to have a full and complete life. Physical exercise, moral discussions and connecting with the local Métis Council – whose members view the world through a similar lens – enrich her life. And at the end of the day, she finds joy in returning to her home surrounded by nature.