Four medical school students from different parts of the country marked a major milestone on Friday with a special Indigenous graduation ceremony to wrap up their shared journey.
Western University in London, Ont., celebrated more than 60 Indigenous students from all programs at the virtual ceremony.
The indivisible group of four, Shanté Blackmore, Justine Fletcher, Erik Mandawe and Marcy Maracle, graduated from the Schulich School of Medicine and Dentistry after four years.
They came together in September 2017 thanks to Cheyenne LaForme, an upper-year medical student who met them each separately and created a group chat, dubbing them “A Tribe Called Med,” inspired by the former electronic music band A Tribe Called Red, now known as The Halluci Nation.
“We hit it off immediately,” said Mandawe, who is a member of the Cree Nation in Beaver Lake, Alta.
“We all come from very different places, whether that’s the East Coast, West Coast or here in Ontario. But what we really identified with was this experience of going through medical education and in a lot of ways of finding the humour in it,” he said.
The group looked out for each other by trying to find healthy ways of coping with the “gruelling” parts of the journey and some of the systemic problems within the practice of medicine in Canada, Mandawe said.
“Through the process of going through your Western-trained education, you’re very aware of this practice of medicine and how it has a colonial background there’s a colonial history there,” he said.
Fletcher is from Hiawatha First Nation near Peterborough, Ont., Maracle from Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory, near Hastings County, Ont. Mandawe and Blackmore are from Millbrook First Nation, a Mi’kmaq community 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.”
Mandawe’s journey to get to where he is now is particularly remarkable, as he first earned his undergraduate degree in science at the University of Toronto before arriving at Western where he pursued a degree in music.
As an artist, he wanted a job where he could use his hands and continue being creative. His mother played a large role in guiding him in his career path, despite not knowing so at the time, he said.
When Mandawe was a teenager and his mother returned to school to get a bachelors degree in science to work as a nurse, he would follow her to classes and attend them at times.
“All the sacrifices that she has had to make, it’s gotten me to where I am now. It’s her sacrifices, it’s our ancestors, it’s all of those together,” Mandawe said, tearing up. “I can’t help but feel emotional thinking about that.”
Mandawe will be heading to Halifax’s Dalhousie University where he was matched with his top choice program, plastic and reconstructive surgery.
As the ceremony, the graduates wore special stoles made by Mohawk fashion designer Tammy Beauvais and gifted to each graduate by the Western Indigenous Student Centre.
“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.”
Fletcher will be going home to start her residency in family medicine in Peterborough, as the first Indigenous physician from Hiawatha First Nation and Blackmore will be joining Mandawe in Halifax where he will practice family medicine.