Combining traditional values with western science at the Eagle Spirit Science Futures Camp

News

By Diane Weidner

The Eagle Spirit Camp is evolving. Launched in 2005 by the First Peoples’ House, it began as a three-day camp for Indigenous youth, hosted by McGill University, with a focus on sports, education and student life.  Since then, nearly 350 youth have taken part in this annual camp, developing their leadership capacity and learning about each other’s cultures and traditions. In 2017, under the guidance of the Faculty of Medicine’s Indigenous Health Professions Program (IHPP), and supported by the Faculty of Education, the camp was renamed the Eagle Spirit Science Futures Camp to reflect a stronger emphasis on careers in health sciences.

“The camp retains the same spirit and strong cultural component, but has undergone important changes to the format and structure that promote health sciences and traditional knowledge,” explains IHPP Program Manager Jessica Barudin. “Our goal is to inspire Indigenous youth to pursue their dreams and goals, and to see themselves, their cultures and values reflected in science and education.”

Many voices have contributed to the camp’s transformation.  A two-day community consultation workshop was held in April 2016 to bring together people from different backgrounds to share what they thought the curriculum and format should be, from minor details to broader themes.  Jim Howden, Director of the Office of First Nations and Inuit Education, was involved in the consultation process and remains actively involved in the camp’s curriculum. Former camper Ryder Cote contributed his ideas and perspective as the youth representative on the camp’s organizing committee. “It was a great honour to be a part of this process and to attend the meetings,” said Ryder, who returned to the camp this year as a junior counsellor.  “To see the date get closer and to be here now, taking part in the camp as it happens, is really amazing. We have a great team of mentors.”

Learning about health care professions

In mid-July, the week-long Eagle Spirit Science Futures Camp welcomed 11 bright and engaged campers from Algonquin, Mi’gmaq, Inuit, and Mohawk nations, closely supported by seven junior and senior counsellors—all Indigenous and many former campers themselves.

Dr. David Eidelman, Vice-Principal (Health Affairs) and Dean of the Faculty of Medicine, welcomed the campers to McGill.  “During this week, you will have the chance to see how things are done, to dream about the future and to be inspired,” said Dr. Eidelman. “You will learn about all the different roles that health professionals play, and you will have an opportunity to see yourselves in these roles.”

Each day at camp began with traditional storytelling from the elders and knowledge holders, followed by discussions and reflections, learning and lab activities.  In the afternoons, collaborative hands-on workshops facilitated by Nursing, Medicine, Physical and Occupational Therapy, Dentistry, Communication Sciences and Disorders, Dietetics and Human Nutrition were held at different locations across the McGill downtown and Macdonald campuses.

For camper Quill Cote Nottaway, the simulated workshops using task trainers at the Steinberg Centre for Simulation and Interactive Learning instilled confidence and sparked her interest in medicine.   “This camp made me want to pursue medicine,” explained Quill.  “After being at the simulation centre, I felt like I could do it… I loved drawing blood.”   After trying her hand at suturing and knot tying, fellow camper Kendra Paul has also added health care professional to her list of future career options: “I really liked stitching people up,” exclaimed Kendra, “and I’m good at it!”

“Many Indigenous youth believe that it is impossible for them to become a doctor, nurse or any other kind of health professional due to limited opportunities in their communities,” explains IHPP Director Dr. Kent Saylor. “We are here to show them that it is indeed possible and there is a place for them here at McGill. Many current Indigenous health care providers report having a moment in their life where they decide, ‘That’s it, I am going to study to become a doctor (or other health professional) and no one is going to stop me.’  We are hoping the Eagle Spirit Science Futures Camp will be that inspiration for some of these youth.”

Understanding our impact on Earth through science

“The camp uses systems-based, experiential learning to engage and challenge the students and to develop their science literacy,” explains camp educator Mike Diabo from Kitigan-Zibi.  “We start every day with a creation story, then we discuss and reflect on the science in the story and engage in science-related activities and labs to support it. Through sharing Indigenous stories, we observe a commonality: the relationship that humans have to the Earth, the holistic approach. We want the students to understand that they have an influence in everything they do, but we also want them to learn about the tools used in the western method.”

During their very full week, campers explored several major and relevant themes and worked in teams to come up with science-based solutions to some of the problems faced by Indigenous communities, such as lack of clean water in isolated communities, reliance on fossil fuels and their impact on the environment, and the impact of pH in water on the Pike.  The teams presented their projects to the community during a Gallery Walk at the end of the week.  “Every day, I challenged the kids with a bigger problem, and they came up with solutions. We definitely accomplished what we set out to do,” says Mike. “This has been a magnificent and enriching experience for the kids. I am proud of them!”

A week of sharing

Many traditional activities were integrated into daily outings, including time for the students to hang out, play games and socialize as they learned about each other’s different cultures, customs and languages. For many of the campers, playing sports was a great way to connect and a reminder of home. Through these shared experiences, the students and counsellors became very close to each other. Having the opportunity to meet different health care students and professionals and ask them questions was very meaningful.

Abbey Frazer just completed her first year in Medicine at McGill and participated as a senior camp counsellor to be a mentor to the younger campers.  With roots in the Six Nations Mohawk community, Abbey has always loved science and received a lot of support from her parents—both graduates from the McGill Faculty of Dentistry—who encouraged her to pursue her dreams.  “There really aren’t enough Indigenous health professionals in the field, so the youth don’t have mentors in their communities that could encourage them. I was lucky with my parents, and I hope that I can help these students.”

Madeline Yaaka, a junior counsellor, grew up in a small Inuit village in Nunavik called Kangiqsujuaq.  This former camper wants to pursue a career in health sciences and explained that it was her experience at the Eagle Spirit Science Futures Camp that sparked her interest. “I was a camper here last year in grade 11, and this camp really motivated me.  I hadn’t really considered that path before.  I always thought a career in sciences would be very difficult, but getting the McGill students’ perspectives on how you can achieve anything if you put your mind to it really motivated me. The counsellors showed me that anyone can do it, no matter where they come from.” Madeline is well on her way, enrolled to begin her studies in Biochemistry at Queen’s University this fall.  She is back as a junior counsellor this year, guiding and inspiring the younger campers.

“You all bring something to this school through your community, from your elders and from your teachers back home,” emphasized nurse Meghan Eaker from a Cree community in Alberta.  She is completing her masters in nursing at McGill, and shared this advice with students who are worried about being so far from home: “There are good resources wherever you go, such as the First Peoples’ House. Sometimes it’s hard to find them, and it takes time to build those relationships. There are going to be struggles, but everyone has strength inside them. Lean on your community for support, they can really help you.”

Staying connected

Camp coordinator Alex Gray was with the tight-knit group all week, making sure that everyone had the resources and support that they needed. A McGill physiology graduate, he has been part of the camp for over 12 years, as a former camper, counselor, and now coordinator.  Alex understands the value of the camp and is passionate about addressing the health problems in Indigenous communities. “Health issues are sometimes tenfold in Indigenous communities versus the general population; diabetes has skyrocketed, there’s a lot of cancer and heart disease,” he says. “This camp promotes health professions to the youth so that they can help their communities in their own way. We want them to know that they can develop the necessary skills and we will support them along the way.”

The counsellors and organizers plan to stay in touch with the campers, and have set up an electronic tutoring and mentoring (eTM) system to facilitate this. Members of the IHPP will be matched with students from the camp, and they will be encouraged to remain in contact, to talk about school, share advice, or offer guidance on anything else going on in their personal or academic lives.

If you’re interested in volunteering for next year’s camp or being part of the student organizing committee, contact indigenous.health [at] mcgill.ca. To learn more about the Indigenous Health Professions Program, contact Jessica.barudin [at] mcgill.ca

Photos by Philemon Beaudet