By BERNIE BELLAN A couple of weeks ago the Free Press ran a story that, no doubt, caught the attention of many readers, not only because of its title, “Legislate to stop fat-shaming: doctor”, but because of the picture of Dr. Moe Lerner that accompanied the article.
In the story, Moe described the struggle that he has long faced in dealing with the discrimination that he, along with other obese individuals, have all had to deal with throughout their lives.
As someone who has known Moe since childhood (although our paths have not crossed in many a year), I’ve followed his career as a physician of distinction by reading about him (in our own newspaper as well as in other publications), and by being a long-time fan of his when he was a popular radio show commentator for the CBC for about five years in the 1990s. (As a matter of fact, in 1992 we ran a profile of Moe, written by Robbi Goltsman-Ferris titled “Dr. Moe Lerner no ordinary physician”, with the subhead, “He puts his comic talents to good use on weekly radio show”.)
That particular article focused on Moe’s quick wit and the success he had been enjoying explaining complicated medical subjects to a lay audience. In many ways, Moe’s stint as a CBC radio personality paved the way for other physician celebrities on the CBC, such as Dr. Brian Goldman who, like Moe, cut his teeth as an emergency room physician.
While Moe was always large – he was also quite athletic for a big man. I recall his talent as a curler, for instance – something that he no doubt acquired from his well-known uncle, Hersh Lerner. As well, Moe tells me that, even though he was large in his 20s, he was still an avid tennis player.
Some time ago an unfortunate incident during surgery left him with a somewhat debilitating syndrome which put him in and out of hospital for years. It also accelerated obesity. He experienced damaging prejudicial bullying along the way. But Moe declines to get into issues of blame since, as he says - most people have their own opinions anyway. All the while though that Moe continued to remain large, he was forging a brilliantly successful career in medicine.
Just consider some of Moe’s achievements: After graduating from medicine here in 1977, and working as a primary care physician at the Health Sciences Centre for four years, from 1978-1982, Moe became Director of Emergency Services at Seven Oaks Hospital (1982-1993). During the same period he was medical director of the City of Winnipeg ambulance and paramedic, services, paving the way for the system which we now have in place. Moe went on to work in a variety of different health institutions, culminating most recently with his becoming medical director of 4 Rivers Clinic on Main Street. (Moe tells me that his heart has always remained in the north end, where he grew up, and where he’s worked most often in the 40 years of his being a doctor.)
As well, Moe has served on numerous boards, task studies, commissions, and other such groups. He also served as a consultant to the health reform office, which helped to fashion among other things, the regional health authority system. As well, for a time Moe was medical director with the Aboriginal Health and Wellness Centre. He has been a lecturer and Associate Professor of Medicine at the University of Manitoba, and has appeared at numerous conferences here in Canada and in the United States.
But, throughout his lengthy and impressive career, Moe has never received the accolades that one might have expected to see bestowed on someone who has contributed so much to the health care system. As well, Moe’s role as physician expert on CBC radio came to an unexpected halt in the mid-90s.
In an article about Moe that Jill Brandes wrote in 1994 for this paper, she noted that Moe had just been featured in a National Film Board documentary titled “Fat Chance” (which can be viewed on YouTube). In that same article, Jill wrote that one particular passage in that film haunted her: “One emotional scene has an overweight Moe Lerner emotionally wondering what will happen to him when he can no longer work”.
Moe has also made his own video on YouTube in 2012, titled “Large Doctor: Bullying & Hatred Fat People Must End”. In it, Moe takes on some of the most widely held misconceptions about fat people. He begins by saying that “two thirds of us are overweight and one in three is obese. Fat people are, in a sense, a silent majority in North America…every day denied caring and justice. In the war against obesity women and children face the worst bullying. It is the last socially acceptable prejudice .”
"Science has shown that blame is futile," Moe says. "The problem involves far more than simple willpower. Fat retention is a powerful tool in evolution to increase survival in times of famine. "
"If just one method for fat loss worked all the other programs that would supposedly lead to weight loss would be bankrupt," Moe adds.
Moe proceeds to say that “95% of diets fail.” Even when someone does lose weight, Moe explains, “the body’s fat cells ferociously rebuild themselves.”
“Every day,” he says, “fat people are bullied, harassed, mistreated and, most importantly, denied compassion, caring, and justice.”
As a physician who is admittedly fat, Moe says in the video that “yes, it is unhealthy to be fat, but sometimes it is even more unhealthy to try and force someone to be what they cannot be.”
While so much has been written about the phoney promises upon which the multi-billion dollar weight loss industry has become so entrenched within North American society, it is when we read of the ostracizing that obese individuals face on a constant basis that the fight that Moe Lerner has led to halt the discrimination faced by fat people takes on new meaning.
It is with that in mind that I read the language used by Dr. Jon Gerrard when he introduced a bill (Bill 207) in the Manitoba Legislature this past session that would add “physical size and weight” to the list of characteristics that would be protected under the Manitoba Human Rights Code.
In speaking to his proposed bill, Dr. Gerrard said: “Madam Speaker, I want to begin my remarks on Bill 207 by acknowledging the contributions of Dr. Moe Lerner to this bill. He's helped me to understand the nature of the prejudice and discrimination which those who are obese can be subject to. Indeed, perhaps this bill should be called Moe's bill.
“Madam Speaker, the last socially acceptable prejudice, as it is said, is against those who are overweight. Day in and day out, people in our world use language to describe those who are overweight, which would never be acceptable to describe individuals in a racial, ethnic group or gender-specific way, and this language is harmful…
“What Bill 207 will allow is for an individual who feels that they have been discriminated against to take their situation to the Manitoba's Human Rights Commission so that the Human Rights commissioner can have a look at it and can see if there's a reasonable way of addressing it. It's not like taking it to a court of law; it's taking it to the Human Rights commissioner, who will address this in a responsible and reasonable way.
“I ask every MLA to support Bill 207 to end the bias and discrimination against those who are obese in our province, and to move Manitoba to a place where we no longer accept that bias and discrimination based on physical size or weight is acceptable. We can do it. Let us do it together.”
Dr. Gerrard says that he reintroduced the bill as Bill 200 following the Throne Speech. In an email to me he explains that “It (the bill) will come forward for second reading when the Legislature resumes sitting - likely in March or April. In the time between now and then we will be working to build support for the bill and to help Manitobans understand why this bill is so important.”
As a health care professional himself, Moe Lerner says that it is other health care professionals who are often guilty of discriminating against obese individuals. He says that people are often labeled as “big, fat, stupid, and ugly”, based on societal preconceptions.
In his video, he urges fat people not to blame themselves for their condition: “Fatness is not a lifestyle choice – as if people choose to be harassed the rest of their lives,” he says.
“This large physician is telling you: ‘You are loved, you are not alone, you are good, you are one of millions, you are worthy of the best health care that all good people deserve.’ ”
As described in the Free Press article which I referenced earlier, currently Moe Lerner is undergoing the most difficult phase of his life, with his mobility severely limited as a result of the aforementioned surgery.
As his life has become even more challenging though, Moe is determined to carry on the fight to reduce discrimination against overweight individuals. As someone who has been a pillar of strength, however, for other fat people, if anyone deserves our respect and admiration for having carried on the fight to end the mistreatment and social ostracizing of fat people, it is Moe Lerner.