Happy camper


by Philip Fine

At the age of five, Physiology student Alex Gray announced he would become a brain surgeon. Brain surgery turned into Medicine so he could help treat his stepfather’s herniated discs, his mother’s bad hip and his grandmother’s diabetes. Gray, who is President, American Indian Science and Engineering Society – McGill Chapter, grew up on a Mi’gmaq reserve in Listuguj, on Quebec’s Gaspé Peninsula, where his mother taught Pre-colonial Culture and his grandmother ran the local medical clinic. His high school did not have much to offer in terms of field trips or science equipment, but that did not stop him from integrating science into the everyday. From clinic pamphlets to forest artefacts, science was all around him. An avid basketball player, at 14 he and his teammates heard about an opportunity in Montreal: McGill’s Eagle Spirit Camp, now administered by the Faculty of Medicine under the Indigenous Health Professions (IHP) Program, is an annual three-day health and science camp, which encourages Indigenous teenagers to consider post-secondary studies at McGill. While Gray’s first camp visit took place a decade ago, that weekend remains vivid: Simulated medical procedures on manikins at the Steinberg Centre for Simulation and Interactive Learning; standardized patients yelling out symptoms; basketball scrimmages with Cree, Inuit and Algonquin kids; and stories from Indigenous McGill students, who talked of the loneliness they felt away from their communities. From 16, he returned each year as a counsellor. In spring 2017, Gray, 24, was hired, by the IHP Program in partnership with First Peoples’ House, to serve as Coordinator of the camp, which for him and so many other Indigenous students, has been helping to see their dreams play out. As for the future, he plans to pursue medicine or health research. “Alex is a true success story of the Eagle Spirit Camp model. We are so proud of his accomplishments and grateful to have his leadership to inspire more Indigenous youth,” says Jessica Barudin, MSc(PT)’15, IHP Program Manager.



The rock: “When past Olympian Waneek Horn-Miller was running the camp, she had this activity where you had to think of a quote, write it on a rock and keep it with you, like Buddhist monks writing on stone. I’ve kept my rock ever since. It is a reminder of how long my journey has been to bring me here,” says Gray, who early in his studies took a year off to get a handle on an anxiety diagnosis. “Taking care of my disorder has been difficult, but I feel now that I am able to focus on the things that matter.



Hand drum: “At the middle school in Listuguj, my mother would teach kids how to make traditional Mi’gmaq crafts and apply the language whenever she could. She would teach the songs as well. I didn’t realize until I left how important these things are to me. I look at them not just as stress relief, but as prayers, and they bring me back home. They bring me back to feeling connected with my community.”



Dreamcatcher: “This was originally a gift to my brother from somebody we were both able to grow up with. Katherine Sorby is what I call a language warrior. She was a residential school survivor, and basically a childhood hero of mine. This dreamcatcher was made by her. My brother gave it to me because he knew how important she is to me. She was the grandmother in the movie Rhymes for Young Ghouls. The director, Jeff Barnaby, is Mi’gmaq from Listuguj.”



A survival knife: “This was a gift from a good friend, Ben Geboe, from the Sioux Nation who came here from South Dakota, to do a master’s in Social Work. He’s the organizer of the McGill pow wow drum group. In the Sioux culture, they put subtle flaws into their work because nothing should be perfect. If you notice, there are some beads that are more in some colours than others, and there is overlapping in some of the threads, and that is on purpose.”



Smudge bowl: “This isn’t my smudge bowl or my feather, they are from First Peoples’ House. Smudging is something I grew up with in my community. My mother would start out her classes with smudging, whether sweetgrass or sage or cedar in a bowl. She always explained the purpose of smudging: purifying, clarity of mind. In university, with the stress of academia, being able to smudge is something that I appreciate. It takes me home, it’s the symbolism of it, and it’s nice to be able to practice my culture on campus.”



Five kroner coin: “Two summers ago, Ben asked me if I wanted to go on a tour of Iceland and Norway to give some lectures on Indigenous culture. We went to the Sami centre in Oslo, we went to Bergen, and we went to this Sami community, Masi. I was blown away at how this Indigenous community half way around the world had so many similarities with home. I sang a couple of songs for them. Ben and I showed them how to make some crafts. With them, we made a dreamcatcher that was 30 metres tall. I carry this coin with me as a reminder of that trip.”



Running shoes: “I wanted to do seven objects because seven is an important number in Mi’gmaq belief. We have a story called the Seven Levels of Creation. The territory is divided up into seven. These are just a pair of runners. Nothing too special. Something that I continue to relearn, though, is that being physically active is very important to me, especially now that I identify as having anxiety. It’s something that I try to keep up with. With smudging, it provides another level of stress relief and keeping in touch with myself. I used to play sports in high school—I played varsity basketball—and it’s something dear to my heart, keeping physically active.”


As told to Anne Chudobiak. With thanks to Kakwiranó:ron Cook, Indigenous Outreach Administrator, McGill University, for lending us his office at First Peoples’ House for this photo shoot. All photos by Owen Egan/Joni Dufour.

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