Beyond the shared surname, the parallels are striking between the U of A’s newest Rhodes Scholar, Jesse Lafontaine, and Alika Lafontaine, the first Indigenous president-elect of the Canadian Medical Association.
No, they’re not related. But Alika founded the national Indigenous Health Alliance, a health transformation project involving 150 First Nations and several national health organizations.
As a second-year student in the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry, Jesse co-founded the Indigenous Medical Students’ Association of Canada to increase Indigenous representation in medicine, a call to action from Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
“He and I are also the only two Lafontaines in Alberta to have medical licences,” said Jesse. “Mine has quite a few restrictions as a medical student, but still, I think that’s really cool.”
The two have also worked together, Alika mentoring Jesse and other medical student leaders on advocacy initiatives as an associate clinical professor in the U of A’s Department of Anesthesiology and Pain Medicine.
“We certainly know each other a little bit, and I saw that he retweeted the news that I’d been selected as a Rhodes Scholar.”
Hailing from Kelowna and a member of both the Métis Nation B.C. and Kelowna Métis Association, Jesse Lafontaine is the 76th Rhodes Scholar — the eighth since 2015 — to come out of the U of A since the award’s inception in 1903.
Widely considered the world’s most prestigious graduate scholarships, 11 are awarded annually across Canada, three in Western Canada and 100 globally by the Rhodes Trust. They cover tuition and application fees at Oxford, a personal stipend and economy-class return airfare to the U.K.
Lafontaine plans to earn two master’s degrees at Oxford before returning home to finish his medical degree — one in public health policy, the other in translational health science, an interdisciplinary branch of medicine aimed at improving health-care systems.
“I’m just incredibly excited about this opportunity to study and learn at Oxford,” he said.
“I’m really drawn to policy and leadership — how we operate in the bigger picture and looking towards system-wide change and innovation. I’m hoping translational health science will give me the knowledge and tools to make big change in the health-care system in Canada.”
When he isn’t studying, Lafontaine referees college-level basketball games for the Canadian Collegiate Athletic Association and U Sports, and has even been on the court with the U of A Bears and Pandas. His family are huge basketball fans; his sister and brothers have all played with varsity teams.
“I wasn’t very good at playing — it wasn’t my strength,” he said. “But I was able to transition into refereeing and found my role. This way I get to play the whole game every time.”
Lafontaine is also president of the U of A’s Medical Students’ Association and vice-president of the Indigenous Medical and Dental Students’ Association. He is also a student representative on the General Faculties Council.
“I’ve really enjoyed my time here,” he said. “The best part is the people — my classmates and the great faculty members, teachers and instructors along the way.
“Without a doubt, that’s what will stick with me. So many people have been big influences on my life, and I’m incredibly grateful.”