When Heather Johnston says she loves the University of Toronto you know it is heartfelt – her family has been attending U of T for five generations.
Johnston (BA, 1992, Peace and Conflict Studies) is President and CEO of Dignitas International, a medical and research organization dedicated to transforming patient health and health care systems for the most vulnerable people. It was founded in 2004 by U of T’s Dr. James Orbinski and James Fraser, both formerly of Doctors Without Borders.
Born in Pembroke, Ont., Johnston said in an interview she has a “strong Victoria College connection” given that so many members of her family attended.
“I am a big city person and U of T opened up so many options for me. The world opens up to you” interacting with people with from around the globe who have so many different ideas about life.
Her international experience started when she took part in a Rotary Club exchange to South Africa in 1986, living with different families.
Heather moved to Mali, West Africa in 1999 and would eventually spend nearly 13 years there. Both her children were born in Mali. For her first four years in Mali she worked as a volunteer, first with people with disabilities, then with an organisation working with migrant girl domestic workers.
She eventually moved on to become Oxfam GB’s Regional Gender Equitable Education Program Manager in Burkina Faso, Ghana, Liberia, Mali and Niger.
Later in her career, she became a County Director at Marie Stopes International in Mali, which provides sexual and reproductive health services for women in underdeveloped countries. She launched Marie Stopes’ first program in Francophone West Africa. When she became President and CEO of Dignitas in January, 2014, she said “I believe strongly in public health care systems – along with education, it is a foundational pillar of development in any country.”
Johnston also majored in French Literature at U of T and took advantage of the study abroad program at Victoria College, spending time in France.
But “the whole world opened up for me” when she took the late Anatol Rapoport’s program on Peace and Conflict studies at U of T. Rapoport, famous for his abolitionist theories about war, and his “Games Theory,” provided a solid foundation for Johnston to venture out into the world.
The highlight of her time at U of T though was the two years she spent in residence at Vic. She still goes on summer canoe trips in Algonquin Park with friends she met there.
In 2012 she became Director of Programs at Canadian Feed the Children, overseeing the design and implementation for projects addressing health, education, food security and climate change. She worked with local partner organisations in six countries: Ghana, Ethiopia, Uganda, Haiti, Bolivia and Canada.
Johnston believes it is important for people who are starting careers like hers to have field experience but now is taking on a senior management position at Dignitas. “My whole career has been building up to this.”