When Bruce Johnson decided to attend the Dalhousie College of Pharmacy more than 40 years ago, he didn’t realize he’d be making history as the first black Nova Scotian to graduate from pharmacy school in the province – and opening the door for future generations to follow in his footsteps. Today Johnson is a pharmacist and partner with PharmaChoice City Drug in Yarmouth. He spoke with us about his career, his profession, and his community.
By donalee Moulton
Photos by Monique D’Eon
What drew you to pharmacy?
I was always interested in healthcare. I grew up in Yarmouth, where I still live, and there were three pharmacists in my neighbourhood. I knew their kids, and I unknowingly got to know about pharmacy. I applied for a summer job at the Yarmouth Hospital pharmacy, then worked at a local drugstore after school. I got to know pharmacy from the ground up. I really enjoyed the work.
Were you aware you’d be making history when you walked into your first pharmacy class at Dalhousie University in 1970?
I never even thought about it. I was just following my career path. I am from a small black community in Nova Scotia. It was not unusual to be the only black person in a class. I was familiar with that experience long before pharmacy school.
As a young man from rural Nova Scotia, was pharmacy school what you expected?
I came out wanting to do big things. I discovered though that in practice many issues are related to the business side of pharmacy. It is important to build relationships with customers and to meet their needs, but you also have to take care of the business. We really didn’t learn about that in pharmacy school.
As a community pharmacist, what philosophy guides you?
I believe in speaking to people at their level. I want to make it as easy as possible for patients to understand the information I’m providing them – but it’s critical not to condescend. That sounds simple, but it isn’t. I also believe in being friendly and helpful to everyone. This helps to build very strong relationships, the foundation on which community pharmacy is built. Patients, for example, will come in looking for me specifically because they know me and they trust me.
Is it important to you to encourage others to consider pharmacy as their chosen profession?
I love promoting pharmacy. First, I promote it within my family, and I’m proud to say my daughter Vanessa graduated from pharmacy at Dalhousie in 2010. She wanted to be a biologist initially, but I like to believe she saw firsthand the satisfaction that being a pharmacist can bring. Pharmacy is a very rewarding profession. You actually get to spend time with your patients. You build a relationship and you make a difference. I let young people know that.
How do you reach out to young people?
My first message to young people is to stay in school. If they go on to be a pharmacist, that is wonderful, but it is the education that is critical. I helped establish the Black Employment Resource Centre in Yarmouth 20 years ago to get this message out. When young people walked through our doors they saw other black people doing jobs in the centre. We weren’t the exception, we were the norm.
I have also been very active with the Black Business Initiative, which is committed to growing a vibrant black presence in a diverse range of business sectors. We work as a catalyst for job creation and advancing economic prosperity in Nova Scotia. I currently serve on the organization’s youth board. We’ve founded Business is Jammin’, an innovative initiative to promote entrepreneurship to young black people throughout our province. Our goal is to foster a culture where youth build the skills, confidence, ability and motivation to act on their entrepreneurial creativity.
In my community, I also speak to young people in local schools as a way of reaching out and encouraging them to reach their fullest potential. As well, I’m a basketball coach and I support fundraising activities for the Boys and Girls Club here. It’s a way to stay involved in my community and to give back.
How can the profession foster greater diversity?
Pharmacy is a profession that promotes diversity. That speaks to our values. I remember when I started in pharmacy at Dalhousie I was the only black student from Nova Scotia in the school, but by my fourth year, there were two other black students enrolled. And it has spread from there. There is greater awareness about diversity today. It has become more and more important for communities to see a local person of colour. It mirrors their reality.