When MD’21 students Shanté Blackmore, Justine Fletcher, Erik Mandawe and Marcy Maracle attend the virtual Indigenous Student Graduation Ceremony this Friday, they’ll be sharing one more milestone on a journey they started four years ago at the Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry.
And they’re certain it won’t be their last.
The four are part of “A Tribe Called Med,” a tight-knit group of Schulich Medicine students brought together and named by Cheyenne LaForme, MD’20.
LaForme met each of them separately as an upper-year medical student giving tours on introduction day. Once each were accepted into the Doctor of Medicine program, LaForme added their names to a group chat, assigning a moniker inspired by the band A Tribe Called Red.
“We call Cheyenne ‘Indig-e-mom,’” Mandawe said. “She really looked after us and helped with the transition, making sure we were all comfortable in the new space, but also providing a sense of a family embarking on this four-year journey.”
LaForme is now a resident in pediatrics at the Northern Ontario School of Medicine, but is still “the glue that ties us together, checking in on us and giving advice,” Fletcher said.
Having their own community within their larger class was significant for the group, who all arrived at Western from different parts of Canada. Fletcher is from Hiawatha First Nation near Peterborough, Ont., Maracle from Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory, near Hastings Country, Ont., Mandawe from the Cree Nation community in Beaver Lake, Alta., and Blackmore from Millbrook First Nation, a Mi’kmaq community located in Truro, N.S.
“I had to leave my family, friends, community and territory completely in order to attend medical school,” Blackmore said. “Going through medicine without my usual supports was an incredible challenge, but knowing I had peers who understood exactly what I was going through was so encouraging.”
Although the four share similarities, they come from distinct cultural backgrounds, she said.
“It has been amazing to learn about my fellow Indigenous classmates’ cultures and to share those cultures and experiences with our class. Each of us brings a unique perspective to medicine and my experience has been so much richer for it.”
Special memories include everyday moments when they would look up and see each other in the same labs and attending an Indigenous health conference together or sharing lunch at The Grad Club before going their separate ways each summer.
“One of my favourite things is looking at my phone and seeing a message from the tribe,” Mandawe said. “It’s not usually serious. It’s a meme from Indian country only we would understand.”
In tougher times, the group debriefed around sensitive course content in culturally appropriate ways, and had heart-to-heart discussions about systemic racism as well as broader issues.
The four graduates keep an eye out for younger “tribe” members such as third-year Indigenous medical students Ryan Brooks and Isabella De Blasi, checking in with them on their clerkships and at other high-pressure times.
The group look forward to sharing their heritage at the virtual graduation, where they will wear special stoles made by Tammy Beauvais and gifted to each Indigenous graduate by the Western Indigenous Student Centre. White stoles acknowledge the completion of an undergraduate degree, silver a professional degree and gold a professional/doctorate degree.
“The ceremony is really special,” Fletcher said. “It supports the two-eyed seeing approach, honouring our Indigenous background but also acknowledging we are incorporating Western medicine as we go off on our next adventure.”
For Fletcher, that means returning home to start her residency in family medicine in Peterborough as the first Indigenous physician from Hiawatha First Nation.
Mandawe and Blackmore are both heading to Halifax, where Mandawe will train in plastic and reconstructive surgery and Blackmore in family medicine.
But the distance won’t break their bond.
“We will 100 per cent keep in touch,” Fletcher said. “We have a special connection from supporting each other every step of the way, and we always will.”
The Indigenous Student Graduation Ceremony will be held on Zoom and Facebook Live at 3 p.m. Friday, May 7. The ceremony will feature alumna and keynote speaker Bimadoshka Annya Pucan, MPH’14, PhD’19, opening and closing remarks by Elder Myrna Kicknosway and an honour song gifted by the Eagle Flight Singers.