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Bringing international health perspectives home to UTSC students

UTSC Assistant Professor Laura Bisaillon's research incorporates a social justice perspective on medical issues.

One of University of Toronto Scarborough Professor Laura Bisaillon’s top teaching priorities in the Health Studies program is to “bridge the classroom and the world beyond.” After a decade working in international community development, she is an expert in that world off campus.

New to the campus this year, Bisaillon is already bringing health sociology, critical social science, political science and international development perspectives to her undergraduate students. Her third-year courses in research methods and the social determinants of health focused a social-justice lens on what may appear, at first, to be strictly medical issues.

“I work with students to help open them up to more critical thinking at the intersection, for example, of health, immigration and the law in Canada,” says Bisaillon. Some of these intersections are hidden, such as the question of why and how decisions are made on medical practices.

One hidden intersection informed Bisaillon’s own graduate work and her continuing research interests: the mandatory testing of prospective immigrants for HIV/AIDS under Canada’s Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, 2001. Her research question focused on how medical admissibility and mandatory HIV screening are organized within the Canadian immigration application system, and with what consequences for applicants with HIV.

“Most countries within the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development don’t require such testing for people to immigrate, and those people who test positive are not denied the possibility of immigrating on the basis of HIV status. People are instead linked to health services,” Bisaillon says. 

Canada’s process is different. All potential immigrants—from refugees, to workers with designated skill sets under Canada’s point system, to nationals from designated countries who are seeking temporary residency—are tested for HIV as part of their application process. Only refugee and family-class applicants are exempted from being medically inadmissible for immigration to Canada where they are found to live with HIV/AIDS.

Her ongoing research and her engagement with her students extend from her experience as a community developer and planner in regions of Africa and the Caribbean. There she worked for governments and not-for-profit agencies on co-op housing, livelihood skills training, micro-credit course development for women, collaboration on the reduction of women and infant mortality, assessment of aid programs and later, in Montreal, Quebec, on providing services to women living with HIV.

 “Through coursework, readings and class discussions; her guest-lecture series entitled “Immigration, Medication and Globalization” and her own research, Professor Bisaillon has brought a new spin to a lot of the health courses and she has challenged my thinking,” says Nadia Johnson, a third-year student at UTSC. “She has also been very approachable as a mentor, as I hone my research interests and consider grad school.”

Bisaillon is actively involving Health Studies students in her developing program of research. This summer, with seed funding through the Vice-Principal Research and Innovation’s Research Competitiveness Fund, Bisaillon will travel to Iran to begin exploring the challenges Afghan refugees face in receiving health care. Together with an Iranian physician/biomedical ethicist and an Australian social work/human rights scholar, Bisaillon will build local relationships and networks, the basis for a fieldwork report, an article and continuing research. A UTSC undergraduate student is expected to be on the team serving as research assistant, with the opportunity to be involved long-term on the project.

Bisaillon demonstrates through her scholarship what Johnson describes in Bisaillon the teacher: “She has given depth to what is meant by the concept ‘social determinants of health,’ enabling experiential learning that goes beyond scholarly literature to engage us with communities and local networks on the issues.”


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