Dr. Tony Fields talks about the series of open doors that led him to where he stands today.
When Dr. Tony Fields was an eight-year-old living in Barbados, his parents packed him a boxed lunch for the first time. Walking through the doors of Harrison College to write an entrance exam that would determine which secondary school he would attend was the first step on a winding path that led him to where he stands today – as the first chancellor of MacEwan University.
“At the time, I was more interested in the sandwiches that were in my boxed lunch, but looking back, I can see that my future hinged on those examinations,” says Dr. Fields. “It’s unlikely – not impossible, but unlikely – that I would be standing here today if things had turned out differently.”
Dr. Fields says that, in the years that followed, “an open door would attract me like nectar attracts a bee.”
“An open door would attract me like nectar attracts a bee.”
On the day he returned to Barbados from England with a bachelor’s degree, he met his future wife, Pat, a volunteer teacher with the Canadian University Service Overseas. After spending two years teaching while Pat completed her volunteer stint, they decided to walk through yet another set of doors – this time at the Edmonton International Airport – marking the beginning of their life together in Canada.
But Dr. Fields says that there were a few times when he needed a little nudge to make it through. He couldn’t teach in Canada (his degree was in science, not education), so he worked as a technologist at Stelco east of Edmonton. He struggled with what to do for the longer term, so Pat pointed him toward a vocational counselling program. After a series of aptitude tests, the program’s career counsellor recommended a career in medicine.
“I resisted at first,” says Dr. Fields. “Medicine would mean returning to university for a considerable time, and I wasn’t sure about that, but the counsellor kept pushing me toward that door, and my wife was encouraging and supportive, so I decided to go ahead. I have no idea where I would be today without her, but I certainly don’t think I would have ended up in as fulfilling a career as I have been fortunate enough to have had.”
Many of the open doors that followed were ones Dr. Fields never imagined. He had no ambition to be a medical leader, but when he had been at the Cross Cancer Institute at the University of Alberta for about four years, he was asked to head up the medical oncology department of the Cross for a year to cover a sabbatical.
Leadership turned out to be a natural fit for Dr. Fields, and he eventually became the Cross Cancer Institute’s director. “It was one of those pivotal points that forever changed the balance of what I was doing,” he says. “That role gave me the ability to influence cancer care on a larger scale and make a difference in more than just my little corner of the world.”
Watch the ceremony
Dr. Tony Fields will be installed during a virtual ceremony on July 12, 2021, at 2 p.m.
And make a difference he did. During Dr. Fields’s time at the Institute, the Alberta Cancer Board and later Alberta Health Services, he championed a provincial cancer program that blends care, research and a coordinated approach to prevention and screening. His dedication to ensuring patients could access care close to home led to the development of the Community Cancer Network made up of 11 community cancer centres. Later, Dr. Fields also kick-started the addition of radiation treatment to the regional cancer centres in Lethbridge and Red Deer.
“My patients have taught me just how powerful hope can be.”
Dr. Fields comes from a family with several teachers and has been surrounded by gifted educators and mentors throughout his life, but as an oncologist, he says his patients have always been – without question – his greatest teachers.
“My patients have taught me just how powerful hope can be,” he says.
There are two circumstances in which patients with cancer commonly find themselves, he explains – one where there is a potentially curative treatment and a second where there is not. In both, there is uncertainty.
“It seems, to me, that it is this lack of certainty that seems to create room for hope and optimism,” says Dr. Fields. “Hope that there may be remission. Hope that we may control difficult symptoms. And if we cannot win the war, hope that we can win some battles along the way.”
There is something we can all learn from those patients, he says, especially during the uncertain times we find ourselves in today.
“It is easy to wring our hands at the loss of a future we thought we understood, but now seem to have lost, and we are not the first to have this feeling. Almost 100 years ago, French poet and philosopher Paul Valéry famously said, ‘Even the future isn’t what it used to be.’”
In uncertainty and chaos, says Dr. Fields, there is an opportunity to will a different future through creativity and innovation.
“Education, I believe, has an unquestionable role to play in that future, and I look forward to spending the next four years learning and working with MacEwan as it evolves to meet the shifting needs of our city, our province and our world.”
Dr. Fields’s choice of words in that last quote is significant. “I say ‘learning and working’ rather than ‘watching’ because I have no interest in being a distant figurehead who only shows up for convocation.”
He describes himself as “all in.”
“I’m going to learn a lot in the next four years, but that’s not something I want to do selfishly,” he says. “As I’m learning, I also want to be contributing. I don't know how, exactly, but walking through this next door is a journey I am taking to support the president and vice-chancellor, her leadership team and the Board of Governors.”
Honorary doctorates presented for the first time
In a pre-recorded virtual ceremony, MacEwan alumna Brenda Barton (Advertising and Public Relations, ’81) and Dr. Anthony (Tony) Fields were awarded Doctors of the University.
We acknowledge that the land on which we gather in Treaty Six Territory is the traditional gathering place for many Indigenous people. We honour and respect the history, languages, ceremonies and culture of the First Nations, Métis and Inuit who call this territory home.