With her home community of Denı́nu Kų́ę in the Northwest Territories surrounded by flames, third-year medical student Laney Beaulieu is returning to her studies at Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry with mixed emotions.
The excitement of starting her clerkship year is tempered by the scenes playing out in the news and harrowing accounts from family and friends.
As wildfires threaten northern communities and residents flee south, Beaulieu is also concerned about the impact of injury, trauma and displacement on an already strained health-care system and what it means for the future.
“This is just going to continue happening more and more,” she said. “It’s shown me that the Canadian health-care system is completely unequipped to deal with the impact of climate change on remote communities.”
As a future physician, Beaulieu is working to address issues like this, using her unique position to advocate for Indigenous health, rural and remote communities, and equitable access to health care.
In recognition of her community leadership, she is one of 17 across Canada receiving the 2023 Canadian Medical Hall of Fame (CMHF) Award for Medical Students.
A leader in the making
A member of the Dene and Métis people, Beaulieu grew up in Denı́nu Kų́ę, also known as Fort Resolution, a hamlet of about 500 people.
She was raised by her grandmother, who staffed the local nursing station for close to 40 years. Without any physicians or hospitals nearby, the nursing station played a vital role in meeting the immediate health needs of the community.
Beaulieu was “practically raised in the nursing station,” she remembers, and knew from an early age that she wanted to follow in her grandmother’s footsteps. Though there are no opportunities for a physician to live and practice in Denı́nu Kų́ę, Beaulieu still made a plan to pursue medicine.
Rather than leave her home to attend a high school several hours away, Beaulieu home-schooled herself in order to take the courses she needed to apply to university.
After completing an undergraduate degree in medical science and biochemistry at Western, Beaulieu remained in London for her medical degree.
“I became very connected to the Indigenous community in London, and the Indigenous Student Centre at Western offered a lot of support,” she said. “It was hard to imagine a better environment to continue my education.”
Interest in qualitative research
As a first-year medical student at Schulich School of Medicine, Beaulieu received special permission to complete her Discovery Week placement at the Stanton Territorial Hospital in Yellowknife. A mandatory, one-week placement, Discovery Week introduces medical students to rural and regional medicine, typically completed within more than 60 Southwestern Ontario communities.
“It was surreal to have the opportunity to work at the hospital in Yellowknife, because it’s exactly what I want to do in the future,” she said.
Beaulieu currently serves on the board of directors for the Arctic Indigenous Wellness Foundation, which is focused on reviving traditional and Indigenous-based healing services and practices in the North.
She also recently completed a term as student director for the Indigenous Physicians Association of Canada (IPAC), working to provide knowledge and advocacy for Indigenous health in Canada.
With an interest in qualitative research focused on Indigenous health, Beaulieu is studying conflict resolution using the Dene peacemaking circle as a model for restorative justice. She is working with professor Chantelle Richmond, director of Western’s Indigenous Health Lab and Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Health on the Environment, on the project.
“I love doing qualitative research about my community, because it gives me an opportunity to reconnect while I’m away for long periods of time,” she said.
Beaulieu also draws inspiration from her community through her artistic endeavours. Under the name Dream Weaver Art, which refers to her spirit name, she paints colourful depictions of land and animals in the traditional woodlands style.
Representing home and returning to it
Receiving the CMHF award is meaningful for Beaulieu beyond the individual recognition.
“It’s exciting for me because I feel like it makes everyone in my community proud as well,” she said. “It helps to diminish the negative stereotypes about my community when people like me get awards and accolades from institutions like this.”
As part of the CMHF award, Beaulieu will receive a cash prize of $5,000 and a travel subsidy to attend the 2024 Canadian Medical Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony in Vancouver, where she will have the opportunity to meet CMHF laureates and health leaders from across the country.
In the future, she hopes to return to Stanton Territorial Hospital in Yellowknife to practice psychiatry.
“I would love to be a stable force for patients there, and someone who could be present in community mental health work as well,” she said. “As a person the community already knows and trusts, I’m looking forward to returning home to help.”