An actor turned doctor, who is now the deputy chief medical officer of public health with the First Nations and Inuit Health Branch of Indigenous Services Canada, received an honorary doctorate at VIU’s virtual graduation celebration event on June 24.
Dr. Evan TleslaII Adams was an actor in his 20s before changing careers — now he is responsible for looking after the health and well-being of Indigenous peoples across Canada, according to VIU.
“What I want for VIU students is to inspire them to be brave enough to reach for things they think they want,” Adams said. “Achieving your own goals is so much better than achieving the goals of others, so make time for the things you love. And also – be a good person. There are lots of bright students, but you also need to be ethical. I admire bravery, conviction and the desire to do the right thing.”
Adams grew up in Tla’amin First Nation territory near Powell River. His mother was a teacher’s aide and his father a tugboat captain. When he was 14-years-old, he moved away from home to attend St. Michaels University School in Victoria on scholarship and then to Lester B. Pearson College of the Pacific, also in Victoria.
After graduation, Adams started a degree in biochemistry at McGill University in Montreal, where he was scouted by a talent agency. When he landed the second lead in a movie, he put his studies on hold to pursue acting for 12 years.
“I loved being an actor — for me it was like playing a sport, like playing soccer,” Adams said. “I loved all the highs and lows of it — there were times when I was on set thinking that there are so many people who would love to be in my shoes right now and then there were other times when we were on tour in the north in the winter, with six people in the audience. I still loved it all, so that was when I knew I was doing the right thing.”
Adams took on numerous roles in movies and television. He is best known for his iconic role of Thomas Builds-The-Fire in the award-winning movie Smoke Signals, for which he won Best Actor awards from the American Indian Film Festival and from First Americans in the Arts and a 1999 Independent Spirit Award for Best Debut Performance.
“I got to travel the world and visit lots of places, it was quite an experience,” he remembered. “I rode that wave for a year, doing the film festival circuit, meeting movie stars and film directors and having fun. It was pretty great.”
He took on a number of roles in movies and television shows, including starring roles in the Emmy-winning Lost in the Barrens and Curse of the Viking Grave, as well as appearances on shows such as The Beachcombers, Da Vinci’s Inquest and The L Word.
When Adams was 30, he made the decision to go back to school – inspired by his best friend, who is a doctor.
“When I was a kid, I was aware of the suffering in my own family history and that they needed people with real skills,” he said. “I just wanted to help people. I was afraid that I was going to lose at them both – be a failed actor and a failed med student, but I did it anyways. I thought if I was lucky, I could win at one of them, and if I was really lucky, I could keep them both.”
Adams completed his medical doctorate at the University of Calgary, a residency in the Aboriginal Family Practice in Vancouver and a master of public health from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, MD. He was the deputy provincial health officer for BC from 2012–2014, then chief medical officer of the First Nations Health Authority from 2014–2020. Over this time, he was also an honorary witness for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada and was part of the movie Indian Horse, which exposes some of the horrors of residential school.
“As an honorary witness, I swore to tell the story of residential schools, as difficult as that is,” Adams said. “I was glad to be a part of an attempt to capture what residential schools were. On a personal level, it is reaffirming to be able to say that my parents went to residential school and that they deserved better.”
Dr. Deborah Saucier, VIU president and vice-chancellor, has known Adams since they went to high school together at Pearson College.
“He is an exemplary role model for Indigenous Peoples and communities, demonstrating that the cultural values of kindness and generosity are keys to a good life,” she said. “His intelligence and fierce commitment to challenging the status quo has meant that his work — as an actor, a storyteller and a physician who has held numerous leadership positions in Canada — has had a profound impact on Indigenous peoples and indeed, the world.”