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An activist vision grounded in research

New CEO Yves Savoie sees an ambitious future for Heart & Stroke

Yves Savoie joined Heart & Stroke as CEO in April 2017, building on a 30-year career in Canadian charities, most recently as CEO of the Multiple Sclerosis Society of Canada. Eight weeks into his new role, Yves sat down with us to talk about the opportunities and challenges facing Heart & Stroke, and how he sees the future.



Health care has been a key focus of your career. What drives your passion for helping others?

I think that we all have an opportunity to do things that are meaningful for others. Sometimes even the smallest steps really matter — shovelling the walkway of an aging neighbour who may trip on an icy morning, or giving up your seat on a bus or subway for a woman who is expecting a child. Those gestures are really important in the kind of country we build. 

Organizations like Heart & Stroke are led by a deep sense of doing what is right and having an impact — and engaging and mobilizing hundreds of thousands of people in that work. Really it's about translating the yearning that we have as citizens to do good, and scaling that up. 

I am an advocate of research and the process of discovery. I am not a scientist but I'm passionate about making sure that we take science and we make sense of it so that Canadians benefit from the tremendous work that happens in hospitals, academic health sciences centres and universities. 

A career in charities

What led you to Heart & Stroke?

That question is a very easy one to answer. My mother recently passed away after living for five years paralyzed by the effects of a stroke. She lived a really full five years but they were difficult years. Her story is a motivating force that I'm reminded of every day. I take that experience and say I have this opportunity to have an impact in the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. 

I haven't encountered a person yet who does not have in their family or their circle of good friends someone who has been touched by cardiovascular disease and stroke. My recent experience is a source of tremendous energy in wanting to impact the lives of others and wanting to reduce the burden of disease. 

In working toward that impact, where do you see the key opportunities for Heart & Stroke? 

When I think of the opportunities that are before us, I think about healthy choices for kids — enabling them by prohibiting marketing to kids. On this issue there’s real traction; it's exciting. As we know, Quebec legislated in the 1980s in this area and this has been associated with fewer fast food purchases. As well, Quebec kids eat more fruits and vegetables than children in other parts of the country. So these changes will have profound effects on the health of our children. 

There are two other areas I find very compelling. I'm wearing a piece of leather around my wrist because it's the 150th anniversary of the creation of Canada. As a political reality, this moment offers us an opportunity to reflect on the people who have been here for thousands of years, our Indigenous peoples. 

When you think of the issues of cardiovascular disease, the availability of health services and the success with which people survive strokes or heart disease, especially for the most isolated Indigenous communities, we have a crisis in this country. The same is true of the issues of food security and access to healthy food in Indigenous communities. 

We've known of this crisis for a long time. It has been well documented through many commissions, including the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. But we're at a moment where I think Canadians understand that there is an opportunity to respond. I'm very excited that Heart & Stroke is doing that as a matter of priority, in a way that is based on true partnerships with Indigenous peoples. 

The other area where we will deepen our engagement is in bringing greater awareness to the risk of cardiovascular disease for women. It accounts for the single largest number of deaths among women — more than all cancers. When I share that with women in my own life, people are surprised. 

What is even more surprising is that the response to a woman having a heart attack is very different from what men experience. There's less awareness of the signs. There's less urgent response. So the mortality rates that follow those events are higher. We have a responsibility here to bring awareness and to enrich what we know through research. 

With so many worthy causes asking for their donations, why do you think Canadians should support Heart & Stroke?

The answer really relates to the need for us to show the impact we have in concrete terms. The small gift of $30 or $50 really matters. It allows us to do work that's very tangible. 

Take the example of a family who might have a young teenager playing amateur hockey. Those kids are probably served a sports drink after the game, right? That’s not really a good choice. Actually, water from the tap — for most Canadians — is the best option after the hockey game. Heart & Stroke research shows that too much sugar is linked to increased risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and other chronic diseases, and is a significant risk factor for obesity. 

Another example is the risk of someone who might have a sudden cardiac arrest in a space where there is no defibrillator, and no one is comfortable doing CPR. 

These are things that we impact very directly. I think our responsibility is to make sure people understand that their contributions to Heart & Stroke help solve problems like these. There's a very direct link. 

What are some of the challenges you see facing Heart & Stroke?

I tend to be a person whose glass is half full, not half empty, yet I think one of the key challenges in front of us is how the Internet age and the digital revolution is transforming the way we do everything in our lives. I think the pace at which we embrace that transformation is a really critical issue.

I think there is also a broad challenge in Canada for young adults in terms of building lives with secure, good jobs. There is a lot of evidence that this challenge is becoming more difficult. I worry that if it’s not possible for people to have secure income, to be able to plan with confidence to build a family, things like donating to a charity or engaging as a volunteer may suffer. 

One of the challenges and an opportunity for Heart & Stroke is the reality that the growth in revenues for charities is coming from people who are making larger gifts. Universities and large hospitals have excelled in this space of attracting the much larger gifts. Heart & Stroke has tremendous potential in this area and that potential I would say is under-realized. So this is also a challenge and an opportunity.

The last challenge that I would speak about is making clear and simple the story of how people’s participation as volunteers and as donors with Heart & Stroke translates into impact. We need people to see the arc of their engagement with us.

That’s more easily said than done; sometimes the changes that we try to influence happen over many months or many years. I think we live in a society where instant gratification has become the norm. That challenges us to tell the story, to tell it in simple ways, and to convince people to bank on changes that will happen over a longer period.

Embracing transformation critical for success

Research is a big part of Heart & Stroke’s work. What’s your vision for research, and how would you measure its success?

I think two things are really critical. One is that the research must embrace the creativity and curiosity of the researchers. Sometimes big discoveries happen by happenstance, and we need to be open to seizing that. 

But that needs to be done in a broad context of where we want to go. Our research needs to answer questions that are important to patients and their families, and that can be translated or applied in the context of our lives. 

So the vision for our research enterprise combines the curiosity and the tremendous talents of researchers in Canada, with an appetite to translate that benefit to Canadians. Heart & Stroke is uniquely placed to make that connection — to play the role of a critical investor in the process of discovery and then to connect that with its application.

In terms of measuring research success, for an example let’s look over the last five years or 10 years, at advances in the care of people who have had a stroke. We now know that if we respond quickly in the hours immediately following a stroke, we can significantly limit the burden of disease, meaning fewer disabling effects — loss of speech, paralysis, loss of cognitive abilities. 

That is research in real time — new knowledge that we can apply in ways that build awareness for all Canadians of the signs of stroke. And it is translated into more quality of life for people who live with stroke. So this is one example of very concrete things that research has enabled and that is improving lives.

Commitment to research

How would you describe yourself as a leader?

When I’m asked that question I sometimes remind people that I’m a francophone. I have a Latin character. So passion is one of the first ingredients. I’m a leader who is attracted to people and to being with people. I like being in conversation; my work is not solitary. It’s about bringing other people to share in the leadership. Those elements — of collaboration, of engagement, of shared leadership — I think are what characterize my leadership.

Outside of work, how do you enjoy spending time?

My big passions are food, gardening, flowers. I’m an avid cyclist; my exercise routine as much as possible involves the bicycle. We love to entertain. In the kitchen I’m the sauce, soup and stock maker — in French I would be the saucier, the sous chef. 

I’m a political junkie so I’m interested in the politics of Canada and of the US as well. The Internet has changed my life because it connects you to news from all parts of the world. And I’m an avid reader in both French and English, non-fiction and fiction.

We’re five years on from today. Where do you see Heart & Stroke? And how do you see yourself being part of that change?

I would say Heart & Stroke would be more digitally engaged; we’d have more young adults engaged in our work; and we’d have a more clearly expressed activist stance in our DNA. This animates me in our work in terms of children or women or Indigenous people. It’s something I want to harness. 

I also think that we would have a greater ambition to connect our research enterprise to a better healthcare system — to better policies and to a system where the elements are better connected, so transitions through life and through illness are easier and are more supported. 

I think we have a role to play in all of that. And that’s possible within five years. The appetite is there.