Feb 1, 2024

Excellence through equity: Mireille Norris endows award supporting Black MD students

Alumni Profile, Faculty & Staff, Giving, Inclusion & Diversity
Mireille Norris smiles for the camera. She is wearing a black v-neck shirt and stands in front of a grey background.
Mireille Norris (PGME Geriatric Medicine ’99) was recently named the Black Health Theme lead at Temerty Medicine.
By Emma Jones

For Mireille Norris (PGME Geriatric Medicine ’99), supporting learners at the University of Toronto’s Temerty Faculty of Medicine provides an opportunity to recognize the strength of her ties to the Faculty – all while paying it forward to new generations of physicians.

Norris is an assistant professor of medicine at U of T and an internist and geriatrician at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre, where she served as the site lead for postgraduate geriatric medicine until 2023. In 2005, she founded the Sunnybrook Hospitalist Training program, which provides family and internal medicine physicians with additional expertise in managing complex medical cases. Her passion for learners has led her to take on the inaugural role of faculty lead for Black and Indigenous medical students in 2020, as well as role of Black Health Theme lead at Temerty Medicine in 2023.

In addition to her professional contributions, Norris also recently made a philanthropic gift to establish the Mireille Aarons Norris Award for Black Medical Students at Temerty Medicine. The endowed award will support medical students with financial need.

“I really believe in paying it forward,” Norris says. “What animates me is the strong belief that we don't get where we get on our own ­– I did not achieve the success that I have only because I worked hard.”

Norris attributes much of her work ethic to her mom and aunt, two driven women who showed her what she was capable of. Norris was born in Haiti. Her father immigrated to Canada to study psychiatry when she was a young child, with Mireille and her mother joining him when Norris was 2 years old.

“I'm very mindful that I owe part of my success to the support of my mother, who made a tremendous sacrifice,” explains Norris. “She left Haiti, where she was a somebody – an educated woman working as a teacher – to come to Canada where her qualifications weren’t recognized.

“I experienced going from being in spaces of affluence to being in spaces where there was poverty and was exposed to many of the challenges new Canadian immigrants face.”

Supported by her mother’s devotion to education and inspired by her aunt who worked as a hematologist in New York, she set her sights on medical school. Norris, whose first language is French, first studied physical therapy at McGill University and worked as a physical therapist for three years before applying to medical school.

While studying medicine at the Université de Montréal, she continued to work as a physical therapist in the hospitals at night and on weekends, a decision that came out of financial necessity. The silver lining to this double duty, says Norris, was that in the hospitals the medical education she was receiving in the classroom came to life.

“I was essentially doing clerkship before it was a thing in medical education,” she explains.

Revolutionizing representation among medical practitioners

While there is still much work to be done, Norris says seeing the progress the Toronto medical community has made in terms of increasing representation of Black physicians is “transformative.” When she began her postgraduate medical training at U of T in 1996, Norris remembers, she was one of the only Black residents in the geriatric medicine program and rarely saw other Black residents in postgraduate medical education.

“Now we have more than 80 Black medical students at Temerty Medicine and we're seeing more and more representation of Black medical students in different specialties,” she says.

“U of T is well poised to really be the leader in Canada in terms of not only medicine as it relates to Black patients, but also in training future leaders in our healthcare system who will represent the Black community.”

As the Faculty Lead for Black and Indigenous Medical Learners at the Department of Medicine, and Black Health theme lead at Temerty Medicine, Norris is ensuring the curriculum grows in its inclusivity, advocating for improvement in the Black Health Curriculum. Norris is also working to enrich the educational experience, giving students more opportunities to work within the diverse fabric of Toronto.

“When we celebrate diversity, we are celebrating not for cultural fit, but for cultural add,” Norris says. “When we approach diversity as something that enriches us, we have the ability to think outside the box. We can be more creative and more productive.”