Understand without Understanding – Mary-Claire Sanderson

(Mary-Claire Sanderson, AVC 2016, travelled to Natuashish in 2015. The students were asked to submit a piece of reflective writing, about their experiences as a veterinarian.)

While my surgical learning experience on the Chinook project was incredible, it was not the primary reason I wanted to be involved. The social context of veterinary medicine is one of my favourite things about being a vet student. Domestic animals play an important role in almost every community on the globe, and having an interest in a community’s animals is a wonderful way to connect with people. I was so excited to join the Chinook project for that reason. Natuashish – the Innu community we would visit in Northern Labrador – represented a part of Canada that I felt, as a Canadian, I should understand. Improving the health of roaming dogs in Natuashish was an opportunity to be part of that community and gain that understanding.

Some of the roaming dogs of Natuashish

Some of the roaming dogs of Natuashish

The nature of roaming dog life in Natuashish made sense to me. There was something about the way they lived that suited them. Natuashish dogs lived on their own time, free to roam and explore without human instruction. In doing so, they were immersed in an incredibly social environment that allowed them to interact and communicate with many individuals of their own species. I witnessed fast friends, bitter enemies and steadfast companions among them. We were also happy to see so many in good health and body condition. Such clean teeth! Gnawing on abundant bones and antlers has its benefits. We noticed some orthopaedic issues – possibly a result of inbreeding – but overall the population was thriving. From their health to their interactions with other dogs and with us, they were truly some of the loveliest dogs I’d ever met. They seemed to be living the way the domestic dog had evolved to live. I couldn’t help but wonder… how fared Natuashish’s humans?

Despite a seemingly tough life, the dogs of Natuashish are in surprisingly good health.

Despite a seemingly tough life, the dogs of Natuashish are in surprisingly good health.

Human life in Natuashish proves much more difficult for me to explain. While we certainly spent most of our time with the resident canines, I tried my best to learn about the resident bipeds as well. The more I tried, however, the less clear my impression became. What hardy people came over the mountains or by sea to call this tremendously isolated area their home? What effect did the move from Davis Inlet to Natuashish have on the residents? Why are the houses covered in graffiti? Why are the children telling us that they’re afraid of the dogs? What is it like to grow up here, and is it a choice to stay? By the end of my time there, my thoughts and memories of Natuashish were plastered with question marks.
I began delving further into the history of Northern Labrador after my trip, and it is as troubled and nuanced as the landscape is starkly beautiful. My trip had left me with far more questions than answers, and – frustratingly – I didn’t know if I was even asking the right ones. It became clear that understanding Natuashish was never something I could accomplish in one brief visit. I suspect, however, that was not the point. To not understand what I saw was to begin seeing my country more clearly.
 

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