Trip to Fort Smith, NT Reflections


Water tower in Fort Smith

Water tower in Fort Smith

From my little plane that shook and shuddered, I could see thousands of little lakes that speckled the landscape of the Northwest Territories.

In front of rapids in Fort Fitzgerald, Alberta

In front of rapids in Fort Fitzgerald, Alberta

Fort Smith receives and sends off one plane a week. In the winter you can use the ice road to cross the Slavey River into Alberta. Otherwise there is only one road that runs through the town to take you to the next big settlement, a 4-hour drive away. The center of downtown is a four way stop with a church, bank, grocery store and museum on each of its corners. Contrasting to the city of Toronto, from which I had just departed, this place isn’t even a suburb. Oddly enough, the immense population drop and lack of high rises didn’t startle me. I hoped in a taxi and rode from the small airport to the Pelican Inn to eat and prepare for the eventful week ahead. Confident that in this distraction free environment I could accomplish much in my journey to rediscover my Aboriginal identity.

The trip was conjured up earlier in year when I was planning my career in medicine. The itinerary comprised of two medical related activities: listening to Francois Paulette, Medicine Man, and conducting informational interviews with healthcare workers. Francois has been a loud voice in the Aboriginal community. His wife, Leslie, is also an indispensible source of information. Her life work has been towards building a community on Aboriginal values by spearheading the Midwifery Clinic. In addition, I conducted informational interviews with people from the Health Clinic and Wellness Center. I wanted to get a survey all the health facilities. Meeting with the Paulettes and the healthcare workers was priceless as I orient myself to becoming a medical doctor specializing my care to the Aboriginal population.

Learning the Dene chanie is an important part of being Dene, Francois tells me. The Dene chanie philosophy emphasizes an ecological perspective rather than one of business (where the emphasis is on interactions between humans). Our life is one of billions that cohabit our Earth. Each living being has an ephemeral flow of existence, a spirit. Spirits take form from the action trails they leave behind and their beliefs create projections into the future. Interactions with other living beings create knots in the spirit world. From a distance the many intersecting and solo paths resemble a cobweb. The Dene chanie exemplifies itself in Fort Smith by the name of its closest body of water, Rapids of the Drowned. One tragic event in the early days of settlement created a strong knot between the spirit path of the water and that of its inhabitants. Not all interactions are tragic. In this instance conflicting internal laws created the knot. The water moves quickly and the force overpowered the swimmers. For our spirit to live in harmony with others we must appreciate their internal laws. However, a harmonious life does not only mean living in harmony with others, it also requires to live a balanced life.

Rapids of the Drowned

Rapids of the Drowned

From the Dene chanie, Francois goes on to explain how balance of the mind, body, emotion and spirit help us lead a balanced life. Our life is a balancing act. Picture a disk at the tip of your index finger. The only way to balance it successfully is at the center. Moving your finger away from the center would cause the disk to fall. The same can be said about the way care about ourselves. Section the pieces of the disk into four categories, the mind, body, emotions and spirit. In order to live a balanced life we must stand at the intersection of all four. Spending too much time in one puts our health at risk. When I apply this to living in the heart of Toronto’s commercial center the unbalance is hard to miss. Shiny items lined in shop windows call to the plastic card sitting in my purse. The environment doesn’t require me to think about bigger questions nor does it challenge my cognitive ability. I see things I want, I buy them without much thought. Even though my setting doesn’t aid a balanced life, I can actively regain balance. This is where the role of sweat lodges emerges.

What role does suffering play in making us balanced human beings? Francois tells me suffering helps us come to terms with our place in the Dene chanie. He runs a weekly sweat lodge that is attended by people from all over the world. This activity is not for the faint of heart. It challenges your tolerance for heat and starvation. As painful a process it is, the rewards is a sense of peace with oneself and the world. He tells me traditionally the sweats were meant to help gender roles. Women suffer on a monthly basis through menstruation. Men must actively seek ways to suffer. The role of suffering helps men empathize with women. But I believe it helps both empathize with all living things. I don’t think menstruation is as big an issue as before with the invention of sanitary napkins and painkillers. Following that line of thought, do men need to actively suffer? Which begs the question of whether technology is challenging gender and interspecies empathy.

Wooded trails

Wooded trails

For the last four years I have been exploring how technology can be used to achieve balance. As an artist in the New Media program at Ryerson I explore the gestalt of different media types. My thesis project, Drum Treatment, combined artifacts from Aboriginal and western medical practice. By combining medical artifacts from each culture, the treatment of Aboriginals in Western medical environments can ameliorate cross-cultural care. As a believer that care should reflect the patient’s values I wanted to envision a healthcare practice that hybridized the two cultures. At the Midwifery and Healthcare clinic, Leslie Paulette is practicing this very motto.

The Health Clinic in Fort Smith exemplifies a rural practice that incorporates technology and Aboriginal values. During my trip I was warmly welcomed to spend a couple of hours in the Health Clinic. I was impressed to see how they employed technology to bridge the distances between healthcare teams. Using a camera, monitor and satellite connection we attended a speech by Mrs. Featherbottom, an anti-diabetes spokesperson, hundreds of kilometers away. This method appeared to effectively bridge distances and unit healthcare workers. Using the conference call setting everyone could listen to questions posed in one clinic and answered in another. Furthermore, the Midwifery Program, spearheaded by Francois’ wife, Leslie is a merging between Aboriginal and Western medical practice.

Yearbook photo of my mother

Yearbook photo of my mother

The Midwifery Program is a holistic approach to the birthing process. Hundreds of years before epidurals and sterile birth rooms, babies were born at home. Leslie Paulette has worked for many years on behalf of this program. It is a way for the best of modern and traditional medicine to combine in order to retain the sacredness of the birth process with the safety science. Her project is an example for me to imitate in my future profession as a doctor.

This trip was an indispensible experience to being a Dene woman and incorporating aboriginal culture into my medical practice. I met so many incredible people. I got to walk on the land that my ancestors lived off of. It is hard to imagine just how different their lives were from mine. In the city there are a million distractions. It is hard to find a quiet spot to think about the Dene chanie. While in the forest its calm and the Dene chanie’s voice is strong. My challenge now is to hold on to the Dene worldview while living in a busy metropolis, exploring media that’s only been invented in the last 50 years and learn medicine written with Western perspective. I think I’ve always followed the Dene worldview without knowing it. I’m most glad that this trip has allowed me to see the Dene that’s been in me all along.

Francois Paulette and I at the Fort Smith Airport

Francois Paulette and I at the Fort Smith Airport

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