Montreal’s Black Female Healthcare Workers Chronicled in Photo Series

MONTREAL — Photographer Karene Isabelle has released the first in a series of portraits appeared online. The newly launched “Black Women in Health Care” features photos of Black women in healthcare taken by the local photographer.

Creativity Born in Crisis

Like most of us, Isabelle felt the pressure and anxiety brought on my Covid-19. But rather than remaining sequestered indoors she used the Pandemic as a creative catalyst.

“I was in lockdown at home, washing the produce, cleaning my hands obsessively, and my husband was still going to work. He was like, ‘You need to get out there. Wear your mask, be careful, but the germ is not outside waiting for you to contaminate you,'” said Isabelle.

Because she’s part of the Haitian community, she was well aware of the many women from her community who are forced to be on the front lines. This is the common plight of many health care workers of colour.

“I would listen to these stories and tell myself, you’re basically buried at home, and these other women are, yes, scared, but still going to do their work treating patients,” says Isabelle “It got me thinking: ‘Are we telling the story of these people who are, in a way, sacrificing themselves?’ There’s a human aspect of it that I really wanted to outline.”

Montreal Nurse Barbara Petit-Frere contracted COVID-19 while working on the front lines.

Her photo is among those of other medical practitioners; an anesthesiologist, two social workers, a dental hygienist, nursing manager, along with three nurses.

Anesthesiologist, Eding Mvilongo is among the practitioners working around the clock in the province’s operating rooms. They work hard daily to tackle the growing surgery backlog. Mvilongo isn’t the kind of person that likes being on camera, however she thought it was important to represent Canadian medical workers of color.

Eding was quoted as saying “First of all, we exist. Second of all, we matter, and third, that we need to stick together to make sure everybody gets better.”

Anesthesiologist Eding Mvilongo
Anesthesiologist Eding Mvilongo

The method is simple. Each woman is photographed in their professional uniform and “an outfit they feel fabulous in.”

“I want to, yes, show that they’re doing their work, but there’s a human side to it, there’s a vulnerability as well,” Isabelle explains.

“For the most part, they want to show me who they are,” said Isabelle. “When they wear their uniforms, there’s a lot of emotion that comes with that, so they show me that side, and when I ask them to go change and change their makeup, it’s something else. This is who they really are, and it’s their fun selves and how they interact with people they know.”

The Reality on the Ground

When Isabelle asked to describe their day-to-day routines and struggles, the words were the same. These women are undercompensated, tired and overworked. The photoshoot also provided an opportunity for the women to speak and be heard.

“They were nervous. Most of them said they felt like they were plunged into a situation that was very chaotic,” Isabelle explains.

Johanne Casseus was called on to work at COVID-19 screening clinics. Before this, she work as a dental hygienist in Montreal North schools. This area was the hardest hit. Her job switched from seeing children to deceased COVID-19 patients in only 14 days.

“Obviously, this was very hard because this was a very stressful moment,” Casseus said. “Initially, it was mainly a fear of getting it (the disease) because one of my colleagues got it the same day we started working together. I was really stressed about it, but afterwards, you just get your act together and have to do the best with it.”

Dental hygienist Johanne Cassseus
Dental hygienist Johanne Cassseus

Personal Impacts

Health-care professionals have also had to adjust their living situations to ensure safety.

Casseus sent her daughter to be with her father for three weeks. It was the only way to make sure her daughter wouldn’t catch Covid-19 if she brought the virus home.

For many front line workers, they face danger and loneliness. “I didn’t want to contaminate her,” she said. “Being far from our family to that work, it was very hard.”

Marjolaine Merisier has a 4 year nursing career. She volunteered to work in ICUs when the pandemic started. Merisier saw it as an chance to further her knowledge of medicine as well as serve her community.

“As somebody that works in the medical field, you have a lot of knowledge, not only in that particular field you work in but also in other things,” she said. “It gives people an opportunity to reinvent themselves because we did a lot of things that we never thought we would do.”

Marjolaine Merisier, Nurse

Working Amongst Heroes

Merisier tells of work that’s fast-paced and anxiety-filled, however working with such dedicated professionals was inspiring.

“The stress was always there, and even for people that are more used to it than us in the unit, but we were helping each other out a lot,” she shared. “People were more prone to working together than working individually.”

For photographer Isabelle, learning how hard they worked, and the stories of negligible pay raises along with the stress of their roles, was difficult to take in.

“On the one hand saying: ‘we value you. We think that you’re wonderful, but I’m not actually going to pay you more,”

Karene Isabelle, Photographer

Lourdenie Jean works for Environment Intersectionnel and decided Show appreciation for Montreal’s Black health-care workers. Her three-day weekend retreat gave these frontliners time to relax and get away.

“I have a lot of health-care workers in my family, and I could see that they needed rest from the pandemic,” Jean said. “It really touched me a lot.”

Mvilongo said vacations and rest are definitely needed, but for her, she would rather serve the community.

“You have to make sure things don’t get worse,” she said. “The frustrating thing is when you see people not even caring about all the efforts that are put forward to help out with this pandemic, it’s a little bit maddening that I would have to stay home and isolate all the time to make sure I don’t get sick, to make sure I’m able to work and help out, whereas other people just don’t care, don’t believe in masks. That’s the part that’s frustrating.”

“When you do something, it makes sense to you that you’re doing it for your community,” said Casseus. “You find courage, and you go up front and do it.”

Eding Mvilongo, Anesthesiologist

All the women know they are serving the public and working together helps them to stay focused.

Black Health Care Workers Matter

Isabelle”s portrait series gave her a chance to beautifully personify Black women working in health care.

“When you look at the health-care system here in Montreal, the Black community is very well established in the medical care system,” said Merisier. “We are everywhere as nurses, as respiratory technicians or even social workers. We are everywhere, and being a part of this project, it shows a different side of COVID-19.”

Johanne Casseus often is the only person of colour on her team. This never deters her excellence so always leads by example.

“I always felt that when I was somewhere, I was a minority among other people,” she said. “I always felt I had to do well and probably better than the average. Sometimes I am the closest people from other nationalities have come to a Black person. Therefore, I was them to know the best of what a Black person could be.”

Casseus tells that the front lines in healthcare are replete with very competent people of colour. But their absence is very noticeable at higher levels.

“We’re a lot on the front lines, but when it comes to managing, directing in my organization, I don’t see myself,” she said.

Mvilongo said some people only recognise doctors that are white and male. She is often asked when “he” will arrive after present herself to the patient.

“I put it on account of ignorance more than anything else, and you can’t take these things personally,” she said. “The stereotypes, they need to change. We’re in 2020. People need to learn. People need to be aware, and they need to be exposed.”

Caring for Others While Not Being Cared For

Much like other major cities in Canada, Black women in Montreal work in the health sector. Living in the city’s north end, Isabelle is very cognisant that Black became infected from being on the front lines.

“As a Black woman, you always look to find something that will give you that security, and you won’t have that feeling of needing to be in the hands of somebody who does not feel that you add value because you’re a Black woman,” said Isabelle.

BLM Support

The Black Lives Matter movement allowed Black healthcare workers speak on the lack of care. “You’re looking to take care of others as a Black woman. You do that often, and you forget yourself,” she said. “The Black Lives Matter (movement) was like, hey, you exist, and you can be not okay with certain things, and you can denounce some things as well.”

The movement has particular engagement in Quebec. Mainly because the dichotomy between anglophones and francophones overrides the multi-ethnic prominence in the province.

“Quebec is not a monolith, people look different, and that’s okay that they’re integrated and they’re here and they’re part of society, and they help, so we need to be able to see them exist in a space,” tells Isabelle.

“I know that the typical Quebec hospital is filled with Filipino people, with Black people, with Hispanic people. Why am I looking at this footage and I’m not seeing these people?”

Karene Isabelle, Photographer

“We’re a part of history, and it’s documented,” said Merisier. “You’re proud to see that people are part of this situation and how they contributed in a good way.”

Nurse Marjolaine Marisier
Nurse Marjolaine Marisier

“It shows our community how it affected us,” said Merisier. “You’re proud to see that people were a part of this situation and how they contributed in a good way. You’re proud to see your people do things like that.”

“I want to send that message not only to people right now but future generations,” said Mvilongo. “Young girls seeing this and saying, ‘Yay. There’s some kick-ass people making a difference right now.’ I wanted to perpetuate that image.” 

Are you a Black female medical front line worker? What are some gestures that have made you feel appreciated? Do you feel that the risk you are taking is being recognized? Share your story in the comments below.



Pinky promise.


Leave a Comment