JCU Australian Exchange 2017 – Elizabeth Edwards

The winter in Australia’s north is mild, to say the least. If the temperature drops below 20 degrees, North Queenslanders like me shiver, pulling out the one long sleeve t-shirt we own from the depths of our closets, before braving the biting cold weather. We immediately regret this decision when the temperature spikes back to 27 degrees by midday, and a few weeks like this pretty much comprises the extent of our winter.

So when I learned I’d be undertaking a four week community placement in Saskatchewan, along with my fellow medical student Keane, I really had no idea what I was in for. It was certainly cold – a welcoming minus 24 degrees on the day of our arrival in Saskatoon. However, what I quickly learned was that the weather was far from the most extraordinary thing about this wonderful country.

The highlight of my placement was the people – Canada certainly lives up to its stereotype of being the friendliest country in the world. From the kind man who helped a confused Keane and me locate a supermarket, to the wonderful staff of the university who helped make our trip comfortable and interesting, we were constantly amazed by how genuinely friendly everyone in this country seems to be. One day we were in a bakery (enjoying some delicious Canadian donuts, which I could easily write a separate blog post about) and a man happened to hear our accents. He then sat down with us for half an hour and told us of his Australian travel adventures, before inviting us out to have a cup of coffee with him again. Moments like these made us feel truly welcome and at home, despite home being on the other side of the planet.

Amongst the most welcoming of all were Indigenous Canadians, who taught us about their culture and kindly allowed us to share in their experiences and traditions. We were invited to participate in various smudge ceremonies, feasts and even on one occasion a sweat ceremony. The sweat was an experience that particularly resonated with Keane and I – not only was it spiritually healing and insightful, but Canada suddenly became both the coldest and the hottest place either of us had ever been.

Travelling north, we were amazed by the frozen lakes and the Northern Lights, and I fell in love with looking at snowflakes. We were lucky enough to enjoy some moose meat in Ile a La Crosse, freshly caught by a local elder, and I saw the winter landscape from above as a travelled in a light plane to the Indigenous reserve of Patuanak. We learned to skin a muskrat, light a fire in the snow and that sometimes it’s okay to drive a truck across ice. The North was one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen, and I enjoyed being part of a small community with such tight-knit residents, even if only for a short time.

Our placement, and particularly our time in the North, also taught us about the historical mistreatment and ongoing hardships of Indigenous Canadians. Acknowledging these, as well as the steps being taken towards reconciliation, became an important focus of our placement. Listening to the stories of people affected by a history of marginalisation and discrimination, as well as their hopes for the future, highlighted the important role that health professionals play moving forward. I learned that health means different things to different people, and for many includes spirituality and community at its forefront, so integrating this into medical care is essential. This is a lesson that will be very applicable for me at home, where our Indigenous people share many parallels to those of Canada.

I feel so privileged to have had the opportunity to explore a part of the world so different to my own. Placement overseas really highlights that regardless of geographical distance, we face similar issues and challenges and have a lot we can learn from one another. Now I’ve left Canada, and as I sit here at home, sweating in the Australian summer, I find myself missing seeing the snow pile up outside my window and I know that some day I’ll be back.