We are honouring Camille Orridge with the 2021 Top 25 Women of Influence Lifetime Achievement Award, presented by Ricoh Canada, for her outstanding contributions to social change and healthcare equity. Over her 50+ year career — during which she climbed from ward maid to CEO — Camille has always prioritized patient and community needs, collaborating to build groundbreaking programs and initiatives that have had a positive and enduring impact on people’s lives.
“It’s certainly not the title. It’s certainly not the money,” says Camille Orridge, reflecting on her definition of success. “For some people, it’s who’s your network? My network is usually more community-based than it is high flyers.”
That’s not to say she hasn’t spent her share of time with high flyers — whether on the countless advisory groups, committees, councils and boards she’s been on, or in senior executive roles at healthcare organizations in Toronto.
While CEO of the Toronto Central Community Care Access Centre (CCAC) — a not-for-profit corporation funded by the Ontario government, serving close to 20,000 clients monthly — Camille managed an annual budget of $190 million and a staff of 480, working across various office locations and in 24 hospital sites. In her next role as CEO of Toronto Central Local Health Integration Network (LHIN), one of 14 health regions responsible for planning and managing local health care services in Ontario, she was in charge of allocating $4.2 billion to over 170 hospitals, long-term care homes, and community agencies, serving approximately 1.15 million Torontonians and hundreds of thousands of others who came to the area for care.
But all those big numbers don’t seem to matter very much to Camille either, at least not with respect to how she measures her success. Her view has evolved over time, but right now she likes a definition she heard recently: success is when not you, but other people can say that you and the work you have done have made a big impact and a difference in their lives.
And by that definition, Camille is undeniably successful. She’s had an immeasurable impact on the healthcare of Canadians, especially marginalized populations — largely because she’s prioritized helping others over personal advancement or ego.
“Throughout my career, nowhere in that journey was I conscious of ‘I’m achieving this, and I’m achieving this.’ It has always been, ‘What’s the work? Who am I connected with about the work?’” says Camille. “It’s later in life, as you look back, you see it. There are people who go on boards and do things to build their resume. I must say for me, and most of the people I worked with, building, we got into it with the activism approach, not a career-building approach.”
An unlikely beginning
Looking back to the very start of that 50+ year career, it’s interesting to see that healthcare wasn’t always Camille’s plan or passion.
“In Jamaica, if you didn’t become a secretary, you became a nurse or a teacher. I failed typing twice,” Camille explains with a laugh. “Then, when I was thinking of applying to nursing — and in those days, you go to England to train — I was 18, I got pregnant, and that was the end of that.”
At 20, she made the move from Jamaica to Canada, arriving on December 3, 1967. Her mother and aunt were already here and working at a hospital, and she followed in their footsteps, finding a job as a ward maid at Toronto General.
“I would say the greatest predictor of me ending up in hospital was the fact that for so many immigrants, hospital was the preferred job because it paid well and was pensionable,” says Camille. “Those are the jobs you went after, not because they were great jobs, but because they provided stability.”
“My involvement in politics was not as a politician, but it was how to make the system work better for people. Then that became part and parcel of the job for me.”
She had aspirations of becoming a ward clerk, but “in those days, not a lot of Black people were allowed to be ward clerks.” Eventually, Camille moved to Toronto Western to work as a medical records clerk. That opened up some opportunities, because the hospital paid for her to do a correspondence course to become a health record technician — and the learning didn’t stop there.
“I figured out very easily how to do the job in half the time,” explains Camille. “I found ways to make the job easier, creating space for myself — because everybody was happy, the job was done — and I used that time to learn other jobs. In about a year, I knew several jobs in the department, and it interested me.”
Unfortunately, she also struggled with a supervisor who she quickly outshone. She was looking for other jobs when, in 1972, Michael Manley and The People’s National Party (PNP) came into power in Jamaica. Camille moved back to work at a hospital there, so she could participate in the democratic socialist political movement.
Her family had always been politically engaged; she grew up with them talking politics, and strongly supporting the PNP. “My family were working class and poor, but they knew that education was the way out, and then they were very political with a party that valued education,” says Camille. “There was always, ‘Which policy is going to make our kids’ lives better?’ It was always about the kids.”
Growing up in an environment that emphasized improving the lives of the next generation left a lasting impression on Camille. “My involvement in politics was not as a politician, but it was how to make the system work better for people. Then that became part and parcel of the job for me.”
Moving up and making change
Several years (and an undergraduate and master’s degree) later, Camille moved into a VP role at the Home Care Program for Metropolitan Toronto. “That’s where I saw that you can really make a difference,” she says, pointing to two specific hiring practices that she helped change.
First, the organization had shifted their staffing model, requiring every nurse to have a degree. “What that did was immediately disadvantage all these nurses of colour, particularly those who had gone to England to train,” she says. “They grandfathered the nurses — and it meant that if you were working at one hospital, you couldn’t go to another if you didn’t have a degree.”
Camille found an ally in HR, and helped push through a change in policy: “If they had a nursing designation and were qualified as nurses, we were not going to demand the degree.”
Another hiring practice was offering full-time jobs to the pool of women already on board as casual workers. “That was usually white women nurses who had babies, and wanted to come back into the work world, but not necessarily full-time — and as casual they had control over their hours,” explains Camille. “Over time, our full-time staff were all white, middle-class women, because poor Black women couldn’t take a part-time job; they were always looking for full-time. We weren’t diversifying our workforce based on the way we hired. We saw that and changed our hiring practice.”
“My goal, to be quite honest, was never data. My goal was to reduce disparities. Data is simply a tool to get there.”
Camille learned that if you could identify systemic barriers in your job, you could work within your job to change them — a lesson she carried with her as she continued to move up in her career. By the time she became CEO of the LHIN in 2010, she had already identified the issues that she wanted to address.
“The acute care system was so dominant,” says Camille. “If the government was ever going to put money somewhere else, all you needed was one super-specialist with two or three high-power patients talking about how they couldn’t get treatment for their valve change. Everybody then says, ‘Of course, you got to give the hospital that money.’ But most people spend 80% of their lives outside of the acute care system.”
She recognized it was also important to fund the services that made a difference in the quality of people’s lives day-to-day. “For me, going into the LHIN was about building capacity in those services, increasing their role, and having the services they provide recognized.” And that meant working with community groups, says Camille. “Most of those services came about, not because government saw the need and funded them, but because communities saw the need and funded them.”
At the same time, evidence-based decision making had become a big thing in healthcare — which had a similar outcome of disadvantaging marginalized groups, particularly the Black community. “You don’t make any decision without evidence, and I realized we were not part of the evidence,” says Camille. “At the same time, we knew, for example, that our children were being taken away at a greater rate by Children’s Aid. Every Black person knew that. We knew we were being stopped by police more than everybody else. We knew those things, yet, when you talked about them, it would get dismissed because you didn’t have the evidence.”
Within that setting, the need to gather data became an important one — but it was only a first step. “My goal, to be quite honest, was never data,” says Camille. “My goal was to reduce disparities. Data is simply a tool to get there.”
Collaboration and community involvement
Even as CEO of one of Ontario’s 14 LHINs, Camille still encountered major barriers in shifting the system to a new way of thinking. “To be quite blunt, you’re at a table with 13 other CEOs, and none of them have the same interest in the populations I was concerned about. Their interest was their product services. Their interest was acute. Equity and diversity were not major issues for them.”
Her approach was to connect with allies in the same space, who had some common interest in moving the agenda — from hospital CEOs, to leaders in community health centers and community agencies, to her board chair, Angela Ferrante. “I always think activism is a team sport and not something you do alone,” says Camille. With an equity goal in mind, she was able to build a network willing to collaborate on initiatives that made a significant difference.
One of the best examples was Language Services Toronto, a shared telephone interpretation service for non-English patients, launched in 2012. At the time, interpretation services were offered at a few hospitals and community agencies, but it was a costly endeavour, and limited in scope. Camille advanced the work that was already underway, collaborating with those who had identified the issue. The result? Toronto hospitals and community agencies were brought together to bulk-purchase professional phone interpretation services. Not only did this raise quality and access, it also decreased costs. For immigrants and others with limited English proficiency, it enabled them to better understand information and instructions about their health, to ask questions, and communicate their preferences — effectively lessening the equity gap.
“I always think activism is a team sport and not something you do alone.”
Camille’s collaborative efforts also stretched beyond her role at the LHIN. In 2001, she co-founded Pathways to Education, a stay-in-school program for high school students, with Carolyn Acker, the CEO of Regent Park Community Health Centre. The two shared a desire to break the cycle of poverty for residents in Regent Park, and, inspired by their own experiences, they agreed education was how they could do it.
“Now my bias, Carolyn’s bias — she came from a poor Italian family, and education is what helped her break out of that cycle, and education is what helped me break out — it wasn’t strange that we both decided education was the way to go,” explains Camille. “We had only one goal: to improve the graduation rate of kids from Regent Park. That’s it.”
At the time, the dropout rate there was 56 per cent, roughly double the Toronto average. They reached out for support from businesses and wealthy donors. They reached out to young people in the community, their parents, and staff of local agencies and schools, so they could understand the barriers holding kids back. And then they worked to eliminate them, one by one. That ranged from providing tokens to get to school, to offering after-school programs. Through the continued efforts of Carolyn, the program has grown to over twenty locations across Canada, helping thousands of youth graduate from high school and break the cycle of poverty.
The next steps on her journey
In 2015, Camille retired as CEO of the Toronto Central LHIN, but her efforts to create a healthcare system that works for everyone were far from over. She became a senior fellow at the Wellesley Institute, a non-profit that works in research and policy to improve health equity in the GTA, with a focus on the social determinants of health.
She’s continuing her efforts on equitable data practices, with her focus now on data governance. Taking her same collaborative approach, her aim is to ensure that the data being collected is not sold to private companies, or otherwise misused — “because history has taught us we can’t sit back and trust that the system will do right by you.”
Her other current goal: “Supporting young people to be all that they can be, and to take their rightful places in the world.”
Rising through the ranks when she did, Camille has been the first Black woman to go through many doors. “My goal always when that happens, I need to open the door and I need to get at least two other people into that space. That has to be consistent throughout my life at all times,” she says, “because it’s sad when I’m still the first of everything.”
Her advice, then, for those young people who hope to follow in her footsteps?
“There should not be any rule that you feel you don’t have a right to be here — because you do. Step in and take your place.”