Arctic Data-streams - Graphing Land and Love

Howard, Courtney

Winner, AMS–Mimi Divinsky Award for History and Narrative in Family Medicine for a Story Written in English by a family physician.

We were standing around talking about water in the staff room at Inuvik General Hospital when I realized I’d been picturing the ocean emptying into the river. Flushed with, “Thank goodness I didn’t say that out loud!” med-school shaming angst, I looked again at the wallmounted world map, studded with colourful pins denoting the far-flung hometowns of Inuvik’s medical learners, and tried to figure out how I’d mentally ended up with a subconscious assumption that the Beaufort Sea flowed South into the McKenzie River—instead of the other way around. I blame gravity. If you flicked water at a map hanging on a wall it would flow South. How embarrassing-an unexamined, completely backwards thought.

A few minutes later, the locum obstetrician, the one whose dictations still make me laugh when I come across them in old charts in the Yellowknife ER (“I told her no screwing or ski-doing for 2 weeks!”) breezed through our conversation on her way to the OR and exclaimed “Oh! I thought it ran South. I wonder why. Ha!”

I smiled, wondering how many Canadians operate with gravity based geography.

I think of this seven years later as I squeeze past people at the entrance to the meeting hall in Yellowknife and scan for a free seat amidst all the puffs of down jackets. I slot myself into one of the few chairs left and introduce myself to the older Dene man on my right. His hand is warm and dry.

“You’re not with the coal people are you?” He raises an eyebrow.

“No. I’m a local doc.”

“A what?”

“An emergency medicine doctor. From Yellowknife.”

He eyes me. "Good.”

We sit in silence. I spot some city counsellors, some MLAs, the Chief Officer of Public Health, a friend who works in media. The head family doc in town rushes in looking harried. Everyone is here because they’re worried about our water quality following the spill of a coal tailings pond into the Athabasca river, upstream. Having grown up in the anonymity of Vancouver, I’m still unused to being able to pick so
many people out of a crowd.

“This spill.” My neighbour turns towards me. “This spill is no good. We’ll see more like these. I live on the land. I’ve lived on the land since I was a boy. Last spring, a lake that had been there my whole life poured into the river.”


“Yep. The land that was separating the lake from the river just melted away and the river drank the lake. Global warming. People don’t know these things. People who don’t trap, who don’t travel on the land, don’t know these things.”

These stories always hit me somewhere close to my solar plexus. “That must have been upsetting.”
“Yes. Things are different.”

Solastalgia. The word glides through my mind. It’s a word I’ve learned recently, described in studies into the mental health effects of the changing climate on the Inuit. It means feeling homesick while you’re still at home. Solastalgia.

He looks sad. “Everything is different. So I’ve come to hear what they have to say.”
“It looks as though a lot of people feel the same way,” The room has become so crowded they slide back the partition to expand the space.

Five people sit at the head table. Two government scientists, two aboriginal leaders, and a representative from the coal company. The rep goes first. Young, pleasant. They sent him alone. He describes how they knew that the berm of the coal tailings pond had been breached the evening that it happened, that they had been unable to contain the spill, and that the tailings had travelled the length of a small stream and emptied into the Athabasca. They had done, “Everything possible,” to monitor it, but of course it was freeze-up which made for difficult conditions.

His company is very concerned. They are a “sustainable coal mining company.” Two chairs away from me, a hoot of laughter. Our local Rhodes Scholar covers her mouth quickly, as though surprised the sound had escaped.

Next, the water scientists. Very well-respected. They’ve been following the spill and the turbidity is approaching baseline levels. No problem for the drinking water of the North. The Chief Medical Officer is called upon to speak—he is reassuring. We all nod at the graphs.

Raising my daughters as I am on the shores of Great Slave Lake, I am pleased.

Finally, the man who has been sitting in a pool of quiet at the head table rises to speak. He is the leader of the Aboriginal group from just downstream from the spill in Alberta. He thanks everyone for their information, nods at the coal company rep, says he respects him as a human for coming. The poor young man from the coal company looks miserable for the first time.

Despite the fact that the leader’s eyes are cast down and he seems to breathe in fatigue, something about him makes us lean in. A palpable sense of responsibility, gracefully shouldered. My own breath slows, is almost held, as he speaks.

“They’ve never been faced with a serious situation like this before. They felt like their man-made dykes wouldn’t fail. The provincial government doesn’t know what they’re doing. The federal government doesn’t know what they’re doing. This tailings pond was constructed 15 years ago. So it was a new tailings pond that breached. We have thousands of older ponds.” He continues, describing how
his people still fish on the river, still live traditionally as much as they can. Meanwhile, the accumulating development projects in his area are changing the landscape so much as to make it almost unrecognizable.

He looks up, “We are going to be environmental refugees because of environmental catastrophe occurring on our land.”

By now we have tears in our eyes. And one by one, other leaders stand to speak. They are from upstream and downstream, their home communities connecting the dots of my medical life in the North, bringing images from that life to mind. Aklavik—sprawled in the coat-room of the health center trying to reduce a Husky’s partly-frozen prolapsed uterus as the head nurse strokes her fur. Fort Simpson--on the phone with their nurse, standing at another map, this one in the YK ER, running a code over the phone, measuring the distance the medivac has to travel against the number of ampules of epinephrine the nurse has left to administer. Fort Good Hope, Fort MacPherson.

Stories of the land, of time spent outside on sparkly snow, of fish and traplines, of hopes for their childrens’ future on their land. As the leaders speak, my mind’s eye wanders up and down the river system. Fort Providence—a Chipewyan-speaking elder is brought in with constipation and gets tired of waiting for the translator. He suddenly bursts out, “No shit!” and raps the table next to his chair, causing the loudest explosion of inappropriate laughter of my career.

Finally, an elder with a long braid stands. He says, “This is the problem. These people have a low spiritual IQ. So when they pollute the water, that’s not a problem to them.”

We have all heard words like this before, but it is this man’s tone that grips me. He is not angry or braying or accusatory. It takes me a second to place the sound, like a tune heard out of context. Finally, I realize--it is the same tone that is used by medical mentors as they try to explain the cultural differences relevant to practicing in a given context. When we say things like, “remember, in the far north, they may say ‘yes’ by opening their eyes wide. Be ready for that. Do what you can to adjust,” we use the same helpful tone as this elder. He is earnestly trying to explain a cultural gap, to create a space for understanding.

I have never been in a room where I am part of the cultural group that is being explained.

He continues, “We who know the land, we have a responsibility to ensure that they look at the land more spiritually.“

He presents no graphs.

Spirituality. Turbidity. Solastalgia.

Stories. I have recently realized that although MDs think that we make decisions based on evidence, much more often we change our practice based on the story relayed along with the evidence—based on the efficacy of an epinephrine drip in a code ran over the phone and the success of polyethylene glycol in a single, extremely constipated Chipewyan elder. We respect numbers but, for better or for
worse, we follow stories.

Such a big map. On such a vast map, the few lines mean a lot. Up here, in a land of few roads, those lines are our waterways. Those lines connect us, those lines make a community of our little pockets. Up here, with less people, we have time to hear people, to be named. We know who is in the room, we know what resources we have, we know better when we may need to stand up. In a way, as we are named, we are called.

As I shuffle out, nodding at my neighbours and winding my scarf back around my neck, I spot a lapel pin, frequently seen in these parts, that says, “Love the land.”

It has been here the whole time.

I step into a crystalline night considering the potential of love as an ally to my graphs. And I wonder whether I will soon realize that other parts of the world have been flowing backwards on my mental map. 



Copyright © 1996-2018 The College of Family Physicians of Canada