St. Davids resident Dr. Robin Willams is the 2021 recipient of an award bestowed by the Greater Niagara Chamber of Commerce’s Women in Niagara (WIN) council on March 8. Receiving the honour via a virtual event on International Women’s Day held special meaning for the pediatrician and former medical officer of health for the region.
“It does give you a few weeks to reflect on how you got here, who were all the supporters along the way, the strength of the women around you, and all the opportunities you’ve had,” she tells The Local. “It was a lovely time to reflect on women’s place in the world.
“For the first time ever, we are in sync as women across the world, with the worries we’re facing,” she continues, referring to the pandemic. “No matter where you are, we have the same anxieties and worries about our kids, our families, our friends, our society and our future. It’s really a moment of pause and thoughtfulness, so I’m really appreciative of WIN and all they do for women in Niagara, and beyond. It’s very special.”
In the past year, many studies have shown that the pandemic has had a disproportionate effect on women. The closure of schools and daycares meant the burden of childcare most often fell on the shoulders of mothers, many of whom had to leave their jobs behind to do so.
“Trying to juggle your job, your work, your profession,” Williams explains, “let alone the demand on families, parents and illnesses. Then you look at the kind of work that women do, front-facing to the population, whether it’s in health care, or other jobs, so yes,this past year has been very tough on women.”
Dr. Williams continues to sit as chair of the Canadian Paediatric Society’s Early Years Task Force, and acted as an advisor at the provincial level right from the early days of COVID-19, working on case and contact management. Her sixteen years as Niagara’s medical officer of health give her a unique perspective on how the region, and its current official in that role, have been dealing with challenging times.
“It’s an incredibly difficult role to be anywhere in the public sector,” she empathizes. “Mustafa (Hirji) is a strong, thoughtful, caring gentleman who is trying to make the best decisions for Niagara. I have no patience for folks who don’t give our leaders space to make the best decisions they can. I think Dr. Hirji is one of many who has had extremely difficult challenges. Hats off to him and his leadership, as well as his team.”
Recently, she was named a special advisor to the region’s COVID-19 vaccine distribution task force. Developments on this front over the past few weeks have left her feeling very positive.
“One of the biggest challenges has been the evolving science,” Williams says. “It has required shifts and changes in decisions. For example, this recent delaying of the second dose is a very good news story. This means we can get to twice as many Ontarians by delaying the second dose, which should get us back to a little more of a normal life.
“The whole vaccine story is a very good news story,” she continues. “We have a strong Niagara Health System, especially with the vaccine rollout. There’s so many good things about the opportunities here in Niagara. There is now a very good line of sight on the vaccine supply. It will get to us. Will there be little blips? I’m sure there will, but look at where we were three months ago.”
It’s not Williams’ first time dealing with a rapidly spreading virus. She was Niagara’s medical officer of health back in 2003, when SARS became a reality.
“There were a few nights of late night calls with folks at the ministry, where we were very concerned that it may have broken out into the community,” she remembers. “But it remained basically hospital-based, and it was containable.”
The SARS outbreak was over in about three to four months, but Williams remembers it as being a scary time. Lessons were learned back then, but the rapid spread of COVID around the world makes this current pandemic a much more serious dilemma.
“It will have a shadow on our future, on our economy, our relationships, our families,” laments Williams. “There will be great
opportunities as we face the transformation coming out of this, new ways we will work, universities will look
different. Lots of things are on the horizon for us to face, the environment, the poverty gap, diversity. We have an opportunity, if we just start getting together to problem-solve for what we face in the future.”
The WIN award is just the latest in a long line of honours for Williams. In 2010 she earned a Hope Award from Niagara’s Child and Youth Services Foundation. At the 2017 Niagara Business Achievement Awards, she was honoured with a Lifetime Achievement Award for her work in public health and her advocacy for children. And in 2013 she was named to the Order of Canada.
“It’s a very special thing, and I do wear it with pride,” she says of her Order of Canada pin. “I’m very proud to be a Canadian.”
Another source of pride is her family dedication to health care. Her father was a physician, and her husband, Kevin Foster, is also a doctor. She and Foster have three sons, one of whom is a third generation physician. One is involved in the long-term care sector, while the other was able to use his information technology sector experience to provide her with valuable advice while she was working on the province’s contact management and provincial booking procedures.
Williams also takes pride in her work in instituting Niagara’s ban of smoking in public places and workplaces, but her work on the Ontario Early Years Centres is her biggest career highlight.
She’s a strong believer in neuroscience that shows children get wired for life very early via the love, care and social and emotional connections with caring parents. She was instrumental in working with governments and the Canadian Paediatric Society to promote and introduce public policies to ensure the littlest Canadians got the best shot possible. It’s one of the main reasons she received the WIN council award.
When asked if she would consider actually retiring one day (back in 2011 she “retired” as Niagara’s medical officer of health, only to sign up for a year as Ontario’s associate chief MOH, a stint that ended up lasting six years), she seems to have a difficult time grasping the concept.
“I certainly question whether I would have signed up for the intensity of what I’m currently finding myself in, had I known,” she laughs. “However, I do feel it’s our moral duty to do what we can as best we fit in. I am curious about a bunch of things, and that sometimes leads to pressing on the early learning and child care stuff.”
Williams is also the current chair of the Canadian Children’s Literacy Foundation’s medical advisory group. Her dedication to helping effect policies and supports for children’s early learning and health is something she promises to continue.
But she looks forward to the end of the pandemic, when she may be able to find more free time to enjoy her weekly outings on the golf course. “I’ll be okay to step back, once we get the vaccine out and rolling and getting life back to normal,” she admits. “I’ll be happy to step back from public health when that time comes.”