Adventures into the Unknown

Hello PLLC blog readers! I am Liam McCoy, an Honors Neuroscience student and PLLC Scholar from Forum 1C. For my stretch experience I spent a month in a community in the North West Territories known to the local Dene descendants as Liidlii Kue, and to the government as Fort Simpson. I worked with the Liidlii Kue Dene nation on establishing a broad-ranging, ground-up health and wellness improvement program titled “Voices for the Health of Our People”.

Being in the North is an adventure in itself. Driving from Edmonton to Yellowknife consists of sixteen hours of infinite forest, punctuated by moments that defy description – stopping as a herd of bison crosses the road in front of you, passing over a mile-wide river still laden with ice in late May. This sublime, splendor-punctuated isolation serves to draw you within yourself, then beyond yourself. Nowhere else have I felt so acutely small, so acutely aware of myself – indeed, of humanity at large – as but one small part of creation.

In Yellowknife I spent time with the Institute for Circumpolar Health Research, planning the specifics of the research project, and orienting myself through time with local Dene leaders, medicine people, and Elders. I learned about culture, custom, community, and the historical and ongoing impacts of colonialism in the North. Then it was off to Liidlii Kue, a several hour drive with large unpaved sections and a ferry trip across the mighty Liard River later.

During my time in Fort Simpson, I built relationships with community members of a variety of ages and backgrounds, including the employees of LKFN, local children and youth, Elders, and individuals facing a range of severe challenges. I also built relationships with community organizations, including the local health centre, the local Metis nation, and the regional First Nations body.

I conducted numerous long-form one-on-one interviews to hear, without a priori assertions or expectations, about the perceptions of community members toward health and healthcare, and the ways in which positive progress can be made. I also hosted a group consensus-building event, where I expressed my understanding of what I had learned and received additional feedback in return.

I am currently involved in the follow-up and expansion of the broader project for which my time in Liidlii Kue constituted only the beginning. My stretch experience gave me first and foremost the chance to use what I have learned to help the members of a resilient community establish a project to face a unique set of health and wellness challenges. I stepped outside of my comfort zone, and alongside the expected development of qualitative interpersonal skills that will be essential to my future career, I learned some unexpected lessons about life, strength, and community that will stay with me forever.

For those planning a stretch experience, the most important thing I could say is to embrace the unknown, and the feelings of apprehension which will arise in considering it. If you seek to know in advance all of the ways an experience will change you, you will ultimately close yourself off from any changes beyond this artificial sphere. Embrace whatever you do, and it will embrace you in return. Be open with and aware of yourself, and realize that “stretching” has as much to do with where you begin as where you go.

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