John Burgess and Elaine Kilabuk
Dr. John Burgess and Elaine Kilabuk, the inaugural recipient of the Dr. John H. Burgess Distinguished Scholarship.

A new course for Aboriginal higher education

“When I visit Nunavut and present myself as a future doctor and they know I’m Inuit, it creates an instant connection,” says Elaine Kilabuk.

From a young age, the McGill medical student knew she wanted to practice medicine in Canada’s remote north. Born in Iqaluit to an Inuit father and a Jewish mother, she moved to Florida at age five, but was shocked by what she saw when she returned to visit her northern homeland every few years.

“Seeing modern medicine in Florida, then going up north to visit family and seeing the sharp contrast of what isn’t available there, was a huge determinant for me to want to go back and give back,” she says.

Kilabuk traces her charitable spirit to her mother, whose PhD thesis tackled ways to help Inuit students, whose high school graduation rate is about 25%, stay in school. But it was the Dr. John H. Burgess Distinguished Scholarship for Canadian aboriginal students, funded through a gift by John H. Burgess, BSc’54, MDCM’58, which made Kilabuk’s vow to return north possible.

Dr. Burgess is an emeritus cardiologist at the McGill University Health Centre, a McGill professor of medicine, past president of the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada, and author of numerous articles in medical journals. After being coaxed into travelling up north as part of the McGill Baffin Project, he quickly fell in love with the region and spent the next three decades serving as consulting cardiologist to the Inuit in Nunavut and Nunavik, an experience he chronicles in his 2008 book, Doctor to the North.

During his time working with Northern populations, their health changed significantly, he says. “When I first went up, there was virtually no coronary disease.” Now, after the introduction of a Western – or, more accurately, “Southern” – diet, that situation has changed drastically.

In exchange for a stipend while she studies, Kilabuk has signed a contract with the Department of Health and Social Services in Nunavut, agreeing to work in the area for four years following her residency. “There is a real need for Inuit physicians,” says Dr. Burgess – and Kilabuk will be one of Nunavut’s first.

Of the 120-150 aboriginal students whom Kakwiranó:ron Cook, McGill’s Aboriginal Community Outreach Coordinator, estimates study at the University, a number benefit from generous alumni gifts made during the Campaign. The family of the late Jake Eberts, BEng’62, DLitt’98, famed producer of such Oscar-winning films as Chariots of Fire, Gandhi, Driving Miss Daisy and Dances with Wolves, has created a number of funds focused on outreach and bursaries, including First People’s House, a gathering place for aboriginal students.

With his goal of helping Canada’s aboriginal community, it looks like Dr. Burgess couldn’t have found a better partner than Kilabuk, who has big plans beyond her busy class schedule.

First, she wants to learn Iqaluit's Inuktitut language. Next, she wants to create a website to centralize all the funding opportunities available to Nunavut natives. And through McGill, she hopes to create a mentoring program for aboriginal high school students to shadow medical students and learn about becoming a doctor.

“It’s important to put a face on these causes,” she says brightly. “I feel a responsibility to be a spokesperson for my people.”