Spring Snowstorm

When I entered medical school with the intent of becoming a family physician in underserviced communities of the North, I never, ever thought I would end up in a bathroom stall in the remote fly-in First Nation of Fort Hope, perched on a toilet while pumping breastmilk into two styrofoam coffee cups.

Yes, that actually happened, and yes, it’s a bit of a long story!

Having been raised in a socially-conscious household, learning of the innumerable injustices in First Nations history in our country struck me in a complex and inexplicable way. During my pre-med degree at Queen’s Univserity, I managed to sneak in a few Indigenous Studies courses, joined the Queen’s Native Students’ Association and became a project coordinator with Queen’s Medical Outreach – a non-profit that focused on providing health education in developing countries abroad, and in isolated communities in northern Ontario and Canada. During these experiences, I was privileged with many stories from First Nations people about the trauma of the 60’s swoop, tuberculosis sanatoriums and, of course, residential schools. These accounts enraged and saddened me greatly. Combined with a heavy helping of white guilt, I vowed to provide service in some capacity to attempt to (in some small way) narrow the enormous gaps in health status between mainstream Canadians and First Nations people.

Fast forward through my four years of medical school and two years of family medicine residency during which my focus remained on Indigenous Health. After placements in Sioux Lookout, On, Haida Gwaii, BC and Inuvik, NWT, I felt confident in my goal to continue working with First Nations communities. After a debate between signing on in Inuvik vs. Sioux Lookout, Blake and I chose Ontario and in July, I began my first ‘real job’ working for the Sioux Lookout First Nations Health Authority.  I felt as if I had finally reached where I was meant to be. Then, along came Henry.

Traveling to remote, fly-in reserves on my own had been a challenging, but very rewarding part of my job. Leaving our home once a month to run clinics up North was just another aspect of my practice. With Henry’s arrival, I knew that I wanted to try to continue my northern trips. Blake, thank goodness was quite supportive and with Henry at almost six months, we were scheduled to fly to Neskantaga First Nation (Lansdowne House) for a week in April.

With our bags packed, including a large tupperware bin full of diapers, wipes and frozen meals for the week, Henry and I arrived bright and early to the Sioux Lookout airport. The plan was that we were to meet Blake in Thunder Bay and then fly as a family to Neskantaga. The first hiccup in our journey came when our departure time came and went with no sign of a plane. Apparently weather was holding our aircraft in Winnipeg and if we didn’t get to Thunder Bay soon, we’d miss our connecting flight North. With Henry napping in the carrier, we finally were boarded onto a 12-seater Bearskin Airlines flight and flew off to Thunder Bay. ‘No problem’, I thought, ‘this is all going to work out!’

A Bearskin plane, similar to the one we took to Thunder Bay
On our flight to Thunder Bay

Blake, however, greeted us in the airport with some grim news. There was a big snowstorm in northern Ontario and the airport in Neskatanga was closed due to the fact that the runway was covered and snow and the man who was supposed to plough it was nowhere to be found. We spent the day grounded in Thunder Bay, thankfully managing to bunk down for the night in one of Blake’s properties. The next morning, optimistic that we would get somewhere, we packed back up and arrived again, bight and early to the Thunder Bay airport. Again, bad news awaited.

This time, the airline assured us that they had found the gentleman to plough the runway, but only I could fit on the airplane. Knowing that I had already canceled my Monday clinic, I didn’t want to bump any more patients, so reluctantly, I left Blake and Henry with the plan that they would join me later on an afternoon flight. So away I went, boarding an even smaller plane heading North.

Thinking my day couldn’t really go worse, after a bumpy landing through driving snow in the community of Eabametoong, the carhart-clad pilot turned to me and said, ‘The runway in Neskatanga has three-foot high snowdrifts and there is no one to clear it. It’s unsafe to land’. My heart sank as he informed me that I would have to wait until later that afternoon to possibly get on a flight back to Thunder Bay! With no cell service, and my luggage packed in the cargo area of the corregated steel airport ‘terminal’, I was unsure how I would spend the next 5+hours. As if reading my mind, the pilot added, ‘There is an Inn just across the way. They have great pie!’ and so away I trudged through the snow to the portable building that was the community restaurant and inn. After some lunch and coffee, I realized that although I had managed to grab my pump, I had forgotten the bottles!! Laughing to myself, I headed to the bathroom with coffee cups in hand. They would have to do for now! 

The Inn

Hours later, I stood with my eyes glued to the sky, the tiny aircraft navigated the snowy conditions and landed with impossible grace. My hopes rose. Maybe, just maybe I would get back to Thunder Bay to be reunited with Blake and Henry! The tiny one-room airport had begun to fill up with passengers bound for South. Women with babies bundled up in their tikanagans, a woman on crutches, an Elder in a wheelchair… We all waited as the two pilots unloaded the cargo onto a cart and hauled it through the snow. Pizza Pizza boxes, laundry soap in a plastic bag, Tim Horton’s donuts, bins of food and toys from Dollarama were handed back to awaiting passengers. Soon, we were hustling through the wind and snow, ducking under the wing to board the tiny plane. Speeding down the snowy runway, we fishtailed back and forth until we were airborne. I rested my head back and closed my eyes, willing myself not to be sick all the while clutching the coffee cup of breastmilk. Precious cargo. What a day!

Back in Thunder Bay, Blake and Henry met me with the rest of our luggage and more bad news. One of the grounds crew of our airline, a middle-aged man sporting a Montreal Canadiens ball cap under a hunting toque, told us that there was no way we’d be getting to Neskatanga. Unfortunately, the man who was suppposed to be ploughing the runway was actually still out goose hunting and now they were so backed up with passengers, we wouldn’t be making it North anytime soon. Deflated, we loaded the car and started the long journey home. 

On the six-hour drive back to Sioux Lookout 

But, this being the North, delays and hiccups are to be expected and next week, we are attempting to take the journey again. This time, I am hoping will be more successful! Wish us luck!

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