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JOHN DeMONT: The immense pressures and new-found fame of Dr. Strang

Oct. 15, 2020—Nova Scotia’s Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Robert Strang talks openly to columnist John DeMont about what motivates him, his notion of public health, living life with a purpose … and his tie collection.
ERIC WYNNE/Chronicle Herald
Nova Scotia’s chief medical officer of health Dr. Robert Strang talks to columnist John DeMont about what motivates him, his notion of public health, living life with a purpose … and his tie collection. - Eric Wynn’s

Know this about Robert Strang, the big man at the head of the table at our COVID-19 briefings, the doctor with the weight of the province on his wide shoulders, keeping us all safe.

He is, for starters 6 feet 3.5 inches tall, with the torso of a man who might line up for Canada as a rugby lock against England, as he did in 1983.

Despite his breathtaking responsibility, Strang has a light side, best demonstrated by his encyclopedic knowledge of old Monty Python skits.

His mobile phone holds the cell number of perhaps the only Nova Scotian whose face is better known than his, Sidney Crosby.

Strang is a church-going man who prays to God for guidance, a man who keeps the ties people send him to enliven the COVID briefings, a man who devours books about the history of his people, the highland Scots.

As the public face of Nova Scotia’s campaign to keep COVID-19 at bay, Strang, at age 60, has gone from mostly unknown to Hali-famous: on Thursday, when he and I entered Scotia Square, where his office is found, a senior going by on a walker thanked him, through her mask, for his service.

What is more, in the days ahead he will act as marshal of this year’s virtual Chronicle Herald Parade of Lights, and will flip the switch at the annual Christmas candle lighting in his community of Fall River, after which, as is the tradition, he will be interviewed by Santa Claus.

We, on the other hand, spoke outside, in Halifax’s Grand Parade, where Nova Scotia’s chief medical officer of health, could be a safe distance from his interviewer.

You learn a lot talking to someone for an hour, even if the someone is a person whom all Nova Scotians feel they know, after watching him for nearly eight months, on the video screen, talking about life and death.

Like, for instance, that Strang was born in the African country of Zimbabwe, before moving to Fredericton at the age of five, as part of a family whose children were taught that it doesn’t matter what you do with your life just as long as you do something that makes a positive difference for others.

And that he moved around as a young man, living in Ottawa and Edmonton, before landing in Vancouver where he studied at university, and started a family medical practice.


Dr. Robert Strang, Nova Scotia’s medical officer of health, talks to columnist John DeMont on Thursday, Oct. 15, 2020. - Eric Wynne
Dr. Robert Strang, Nova Scotia’s medical officer of health, talks to columnist John DeMont on Thursday, Oct. 15, 2020. - Eric Wynne


“Too often in family practice I felt I was putting a Band-Aid on things,” he told me. “(It was) necessary, but I wanted to be in a place where I could be working on preventing things ... creating long-lasting solutions instead of Band-Aids.”

So, I discovered, he switched to public health, keeping bigger populations safe. Strang spent two years as an associate medical officer of health in British Columbia’s lower mainland, focusing mainly on communicable diseases.

Then a job opened in Halifax as the Capital District health authority’s medical officer of health.

“Part of it was being here as a kid,” he said, (Strang had spent a series of summers in Nova Scotia while his forester father researched the barrens of southwest Nova Scotia). But he was also looking for work that offered “the broad spectrum of public health.”

That was 1999. He’s been here ever since.

Being the chief medical officer of health for the province, he said, “means that my patient is the almost one million people of Nova Scotia.”


“We have to be cautious about thinking there’s some kind of a solution out there that will allow us to go back to normal.”

- Dr. Robert Strang


It's a collaborative effort, a team effort, he points out over and over in our conversation.

But he is the point man, with the big-picture view, and COVID-19 is the moment he has been training for all his life, in the same way that a soldier prepares for war.

Nobody wants a pandemic. Yet, his view is that every human is given certain gifts, strengths and opportunities. His opportunity, he feels, was the chance to become a public health physician, and then a chief medical officer. “My job,” he said, “is to do what I can with that.” At this dangerous moment in time, he finds himself “in a position through leadership to hopefully make a difference.”

During our first wave of the pandemic, when even Nova Scotia’s modest level of COVID “stretched us beyond our max,” things were “very tense,” he said.

Since then his endless seven-day work weeks have levelled off. The standing committee meetings between the key public health officials across the country have dropped from three times a week to twice.

Bearing something unforeseen, he and Premier Stephen McNeil only go live to brief the province once a week.

But Strang’s days are still booked solid from beginning to end. The pressure, furthermore, remains immense. “Everything we are doing, there is a reason to do it,” he said. But there is always known and unknown consequences.”

Deciding, for instance, to shut down the economy and limiting who can get together and for how long has profound impacts on people’s lives.

Ultimately, Strang says, the premier makes those decisions. McNeil, however, has made it clear that public health comes first. Having the responsibility for actions that affect all Nova Scotians does not sit easily with Strang.

“It’s just there and, man, it’s just on your shoulders and you know that everything you’re deciding has a lot of impacts on a lot of people,” he explained.

He does not carry this weight entirely alone. Strang and his wife Stephanie have two daughters, Alex, 25 and Emma, 16, as well as a son Thomas, who is 15, and suffers from a genetic disorder that involves non-verbal autism, cognitive and motor disabilities, and a chronic pain disorder.

The support they’ve all received from the people of Fall River has been touching as has been the help and prayers from the folks at their local church, Fall River Chapel.

Strang, I learned Thursday, is a person of strong Christian faith. In fact, his faith calls him to “look after the poor, widows, people in jail, those on the margins of society,” which aligns perfectly with his view of what public health is all about.

For the man responsible for each and every Nova Scotians’ safety, it helps to feel that, at a certain point, everything is out of his hands. It is good for him to believe that “I’ve been given the opportunity to be here, and given certain training, and whatever to do the best that I can, but I don’t have to ultimately carry that weight of responsibility all by myself.”

I learned other things when we spoke on the nice October morning. That his musical tastes go no further than what his kids have on in the car. That he reads mostly history. (Right now he’s well into A Short History of Nearly Everything, by the British author Bill Bryson.) That he drives his administrative assistant a little nuts with his cornball brand of humour.

When I asked how he got away from it all, Strang said the ex-jock was too busy for much exercise beyond the occasional walk.

Then he talked about his son Thomas, who is 15 and needs the care of a couple of people all the time while awake.

His wife has carried the torch in that regard since the pandemic hit. But when Strang isn’t working he helps care for his boy. “In a way that almost gives me a required break,” Strang said. “I’m forced to step away.”

It sounds hard when there is so much to think about. Strang said that the focus on the pandemic means that other public health issues, like youth vaping and opioid use, aren’t getting the attention they need.

At the same time, so many questions surround COVID-19. Will there be a third and even fourth wave? If you are infected and get immunity, how long will it last? When a vaccine finally comes how well will it work?

“We have to be cautious about thinking there’s some kind of a solution out there that will allow us to go back to normal,” he said. “We need to think about (having) COVID around for the foreseeable future, so how do we adapt and live with COVID.”

For all of this he’s no pessimist. Some good things, he feels confident will emerge from the pandemic.

Reduced travel and increased emphasis on virtual work, for example, will reduce global warming.

The Christian in him even hopes that people will treat each other better. COVID, he said, “challenges us to think not about ourselves but about others.”

Which, I suppose, is Strang’s credo, isn’t it.

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