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Winning Student Essay 2022 - Reflections from a Visitor in Keeshechewan

09-Nov-2022 10:00 AM | Anonymous
As our 10-passenger plane whirled into the air, its engine spluttered in the winds. I marveled at the tributaries like veins weaving through the lush greenery and watched the homes becoming mere specks. I imagined the wildlife that lived down there, appearing seemingly untouched by man, no semblance of concrete and glass I am so used to. Just soil, water and trees in its natural opulence. We were on our way to Kashechewan.


Keeshechewan, meaning “where the water flows fast” in Cree, is a Cree First Nation community located near James Bay. The community lies in a flood-prone area which becomes swallowed by the Albany River every spring. They are part of Treaty 9, an agreement first signed in 1905-1906 between Anishinaabe and Mushkegowuk Cree communities and the Crown. However, the circumstances around the treaty are still in question, promises left unfilled.


We were met by friendly faces on the tarmac. It was a herculean effort as we climbed on top the back of the pickup trucks, destined for the nearby nursing station. The back littered with empty water bottles, we packed ourselves like sardines. The unpaved roads tumbled our bodies around like ragdolls. The cold, crisp air made my cheeks burn; our hair whipped defeatedly in the wind. We shot each other looks of disbelief and childish amusement, the type of look when you are unsure if you are having fun or on the cusp of danger.


I never would have imagined myself in a small Indigenous community on the James Bay Coast – another unique opportunity that my medical training has afforded me. I was sent as part of a team from Weeneebayko Area Health Authority to provide support in the midst of a serious COVID-19 outbreak. The virus was spreading quickly through the intergenerational homes and patients left vulnerable by chronic disease and effects of colonization. As we tried to find calm in the chaos, I was assigned to see patients that were not query COVID.


C.W. came into the nursing station because his cast was too loose. A relatively benign, low acuity complaint – however, one that excites a medical learner enthusiastic to be hands-on at any given moment. I was eager to help wherever I could. As I awkwardly set up our supplies to recast his arm, he graciously offered me small talk.


He asked what year I am in and what I’m training to be. He says, “you must be really smart”, in a way that felt intimidating to me. I briefly held the weight of his words. Reflexively, I asked him what he does. He told me he is good with his hands, worked in carpentry, but that is how he hurt his arm. He grew up here in Keeshechewan, but went to school in a bigger city, an opportunity he acknowledged that not everyone has access to around here. He also tells me for a while he lost his language, but he was lucky to get it back after he returned to the community.


He spoke excitedly about his youth, his love for hockey and his achievements as a goalie. However, his love also led to a herniated disc that left him in chronic pain. And now with his hand in a cast, he could not do his other love, which was to write. He beamed with pride speaking about his beautiful cursive, the way he could string together letters in a fluid entanglement. He was even paid by friends to help write letters for their families, but he spoke about this in a trembling despair.


He was extremely polite – grateful – for what we did for him. He then tells me he remembers my preceptor, when he had first broken his arm in a work-related accident. He was extremely flustered, his father on the brink of death because of COVID-19 and may have acted inappropriately with the staff in Moose Factory. He told me he was thankful that they crossed paths again, because he sincerely wanted to apologize. I told him that I think she would really appreciate that. His eyes were filled with regret and his voice was soft. And I ponder what it means to hurt and be hurt. What it means to acknowledge our flaws and to right our wrongs. How insightful for him to see the harm he caused in light of his own suffering.


I cleaned up the plaster between his fingers meticulously and was proud of my work.


And then he wished me luck with my studies, and I wished him luck too. My work here was done. My brief interaction with him, also marked my brief time in Keeshechewan. I knew that I likely would not be back to see him again like two lines on diverging paths.


As my day ended, we were sent back on our charter plane to Moosonee. Another bumpy ride in the back of a pick-up truck, it was becoming routine. However, on our car ride back towards the airport I noticed something. The worn-down houses, that resembled portables more than homes, were splattered with signage saying…


“No Visitors.”


As the wind began to catch under the wings of our little plane and the sun fell towards the horizon, I contemplated the weight of those words.



A sincere thanks to all of the patients, preceptors, and locals who welcomed me to their community. Who trusted me with their care. Who shared time with me. Who allowed me to see a world, so different than my own.


And I hope we continue to reflect on our responsibility to Indigenous peoples that have been harmed; what are we but our words and commitment to each other? That we continue to reflect on how we are visitors to this land, and sometimes to our patient’s lives… in cross-section. And that we will never understand the harms and experiences in totality, we nonetheless have a commitment to work together and live in balance and harmony.



By Andrew Lee
Queen’s University – Class of 2022

Word count: 990

Winner of the SRPC Student Essay contest 2022

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