Baycrest gets three named to the 2016 Order of Canada list

Dr. Ellen Bialystok, Mr. Eli Kassner and Dr. Catharine Whiteside

Dr. Ellen Bialystok, Mr. Eli Kassner and Dr. Catharine Whiteside

On June 30, 2016 Governor General David Johnston announced the new list of appointments to the Order of Canada. Among them are three Baycrest community members – Rotman Research Institute Associate Scientist and York University Professor of Psychology, Dr. Ellen Bialystok, O.C.; Baycrest  Apotex, Jewish Home for the Aged resident and classical guitarist Mr. Eli Kassner, M.C.; and Baycrest Health Sciences Board Member Dr. Catharine Whiteside, M.C., who is an MD and PhD graduate of the University of Toronto, and FRCPC in Internal Medicine and Nephrology. 

Dr. Bialystok was named an Officer of the Order of Canada (O.C.) for her “contributions to our understanding of the cognitive benefits of bilingualism, and for opening up new avenues of research in her field,” according to the Governor General. Mr. Kassner was named as a Member of the Order of Canada (M.C.) for “advancing classical guitar in Canada as a musician, pedagogue, mentor and co-founder of the Guitar Society of Toronto.” Dr. Whiteside was named for her “leadership in academic medicine and nephrology, and for her scientific contributions to our understanding of the cellular mechanisms underlying kidney disorders.”

Admission into the Order of Canada is the second highest meritorious honour in the country’s system of orders, decorations, and medals. It comes second only to membership in the Order of Merit.

“This is absolutely the most incredible honour I’ve ever received. Because it comes from outside my community,” Dr. Bialystok says. ”And it’s given by the government on behalf of the entire country. The honour is overwhelming.”

Order of Canada Medal

The insignia of the Order is a stylized snowflake of six points, with a red annulus at its centre which bears a stylized maple leaf circumscribed with the motto of the Order, DESIDERANTES MELIOREM PATRIAM (“They desire a better country”), surmounted by the Royal Crown. It is struck in fine silver and is composed of three individual pieces: the snowflake, annulus and maple leaf. The colour is added by hand through a unique application of opaque and translucent enamel. [Photo courtesy Governor General of Canada’s office.]

Bialystok believes her naming to the Order will have a positive influence on education into the benefits of bilingualism.

“Canada is pretty sympathetic to bilingualism. But outside of Canada, there’s great antipathy [towards bilingualism] and it’s a constant battle… to persuade people that bilingualism is a good thing. I see this award as being helpful in the education battle, as it gives credibility to [my work] and explains to people that these are big questions, and important issues regarding brain health.”

Much of her current work focuses on neuroimaging and the neurological bases of bilingualism.

“There’s amazing work being done on the neurological basis of bilingualism in labs around the world. All of these studies are showing two kinds of things: Firstly, when monolinguals and bilinguals perform a simple task, they may perform it at apparently similar levels of accuracy and proficiency, but when you look at their brains, they’re doing the tasks differently. In many cases, bilinguals’ brain networks are requiring less energy to achieve the same outcome. And secondly, through neuroimaging, we can actually see changes in the structure of bilingual brains. The parts of the brain that most of us believe are used in processing… actually are denser in bilinguals. Meaning, there’s more grey matter density and better white matter connectivity. The brains are ‘better’ in those regions associated with bilinguals.”

Part of her work is being funded by the National Institute of Health in the U.S., and her co-principal investigators are here at Baycrest. “It’s a study looking at older adults who are healthy or are experiencing some mild cognitive impairment. We’re doing the brain imaging at York University but are collaborating at the Rotman Research Institute with Drs. Fergus Craik, Cheryl Grady and Morris Freedman,” Bialystok says.

Bialystok has spent decades investigating the cognition-bilingualism connection, first on children then shifting to older adults. She recalls the moment her work began taking on heightened importance, and it happened at Baycrest.

“I had been studying the effect of bilingualism on children for about 20 years. But at some point, for this research to really move forward, it needed to move into a different context and to include older adults and ultimately… patients. Because there was no other way to put together a story that made sense across the whole lifespan,” she says. “To make this a real study about brains and minds, it had to be recast in how we develop cognitive reserve. That opportunity came when I was awarded a Killam Fellowship in 2001 and ended up spending two years at the Rotman Research Institute, working with colleagues to include research on adults and older adults in my work. Those collaborations became the basis for all the subsequent research we did with patients. So, it is the case that without the resources and my colleagues at Baycrest, this research wouldn’t have happened.”

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Kassner, 92, has been at Baycrest’s Apotex Centre, Jewish Home for the Aged, since March 2015 and is deeply appreciative of his naming to the Order of Canada.

“I love Canada. It’s the best country in the world and I feel very honoured… to be named for an Order of Canada,” he says. Speaking about being able to receive the honour here at Baycrest, Eli says it will be a “special” privilege.

“I think Baycrest is a great place and the people who live here are very lucky.”

Though he is no longer able to play as he once could, Eli recalls how he fell in love with the guitar at a young age.

“I remember my sister playing the guitar when I was about five or six years old. I loved the gentleness of the guitar. There is no roughness. I don’t remember when I got my first guitar, but it went everywhere with me. The more I played, the more I loved it and the more I could do with it,” he remembers. “I used to work at [musical instrument dealership] Whaley Royce & Co Ltd. store in Toronto. One day, I was playing a Bach piece on the guitar while I was at work. A customer was watching and listening. He then asked if I could teach him how to play this piece. That was when my career as a music teacher started and it grew from there.”  

A July 5 release and article in Classical Guitar Magazine paid tribute to Eli Kassner and described his accomplishments as follows:

“Eli’s contributions to music in Canada have been immense. When he arrived in Canada in 1951, classical guitar had virtually no presence. Without Eli’s inspiration and energy, that still might be the case today. Thanks to Eli, the Guitar Society of Toronto [which he founded in 1956] is one of North America’s oldest and most active. Classical guitar studies are thriving at the University of Toronto—one of the first universities in North America to treat guitar as a ‘serious’ classical instrument. Multiple generations of guitar students have been inspired to launch careers as artists, composers and teachers.  Eli’s International Guitar Festivals and Competitions in the 1970s and ’80s have laid the foundation for international guitar festivals worldwide.  There is much more, but this gives you some idea of Eli’s extraordinary achievements.”

The article continues: “At the outbreak of World War II, [Kassner] fled his native Austria to work on a kibbutz. After moving to Toronto in 1951, he became a guitar teacher… and by the early ’60s – after he’d studied with Andrés Segovia in Spain for a period – he started teaching at the University of Toronto and at the Toronto Royal Conservatory of Music. Later, he founded the Eli Kassner Guitar Academy in Toronto. Besides founding the Guitar Society of Toronto and forming and directing the University of Toronto Guitar Ensemble, Kassner has also encouraged a number of Canadian composers to pen works for the guitar.”

Eli is unable to travel to Ottawa for his investiture ceremony. Instead, the government will hold his award ceremony at Baycrest later this year.

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In addition to her naming to the Order this year, in 2007 Dr. Whiteside was awarded the Medal for Research Excellence from the Kidney Foundation of Canada. She is the recipient of the Canadian Medical Association 2009 May Cohen Award for Women Mentors. In 2015 she was awarded an Honorary Fellowship in the College of Family Physicians of Canada and in 2016 received the OMA’s Advocate for Students and Residents Award. She is a founding member and past President of the Canadian Academy of Health Sciences, currently serves as a Director on the Board of The Scarborough Hospital Foundation and is Chair of the Board of the Banting Research Foundation. Dr. Whiteside now holds the position of Executive Director of the Strategic Patient-Oriented Research Network in Diabetes and Related Complications.

All of Baycrest extends its sincerest congratulations to all three recipients!