VIU Awards Honorary Degree to Award-Winning Medical Doctor and Actor

Evan Adams portrait

Dr. Evan Adams, a physician and actor, is receiving an honorary doctor of letters at VIU’s upcoming virtual graduation celebration event.

June 15, 2021 - 2:30pm

Dr. Evan Tlesla II Adams will receive his honorary doctorate at VIU’s virtual graduation celebration event on June 24.   

If there is one thing about his story that Dr. Evan Tlesla II Adams hopes Vancouver Island University (VIU) graduates will take to heart – it’s that it’s never too late to change directions and pursue a different passion in life.

Adams, who is now the Deputy Chief Medical Officer of Public Health with the First Nations and Inuit Health Branch of Indigenous Services Canada, is charged with looking after the health and well-being of Indigenous peoples across Canada. It’s a very different role from his first career in his 20s – as an internationally renowned, award-winning actor.

“What I want for VIU students is to inspire them to be brave enough to reach for things they think they want,” says Adams. “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, a teacher’s aide, and father, a tugboat captain, always wanted him to do well in school – and he did. 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,” remembers Adams. “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.”

Over his acting career, 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 remembers. “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.”

Over his acting career, Adams 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. She told him she thought he could do it too.

“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 says. “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 to 2014, then Chief Medical Officer of the First Nations Health Authority from 2014 to 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,” says Adams. “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.”

His current role as Deputy Chief Medical Officer of Public Health with Indigenous Services Canada has been both challenging and exciting during COVID-19.

“We have had to collaborate and co-operate more, and I am proud to have been a part of this enormous effort,” says Adams.

Dr. Deborah Saucier, VIU President and Vice-Chancellor, has known Adams since they went to high school together at Pearson College.

“I have known Dr. Adams since we were both teenagers, and given his big smile, kind nature and exuberance for life, it could be easy to overlook his intelligence, his commitment to helping others and his work advocating for Indigenous truths on national and international stages,” she says. “This is why I am so pleased to recognize Evan for these contributions. 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. 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. I am proud to call Evan a friend and look forward to celebrating his many achievements.”

Tune in to hear Adams’ words of wisdom to VIU’s 2021 graduates at 2 pm on June 24, during the virtual graduation celebration. Visit the Facebook event page for more details.


Media Contact:

Jenn McGarrigle, External Communications Advisor, Vancouver Island University

C: 250.619.6860 | E: | T: @VIUNews

Tags: Community Engagement | Announcements

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