Students of the Morley Community School are getting an even broader taste of what it might be like to be a veterinarian when they grow up, thanks to a new grant from PetSmart Charities of Canada that supports an expansion of a partnership between the Stoney Nakoda Nation and the University of Calgary Faculty of Veterinary Medicine (UCVM).

A group of faculty, staff, and graduate students helped set up the youth outreach partnership in 2018, which has UCVM faculty and students visiting schools with the goal of presenting veterinary medicine as a potential career option to Stoney Nakoda youth.

The new funding allows for further expansion of this initiative to build a program that will include ongoing Nakoda youth engagement and mentorship, as well as providing veterinary services in the community.

"Our third-year vet med class will provide wellness clinics for companion animals on-site in Morley in partnership with community members, and a fourth-year clinical rotation will have students providing veterinary services for animals," explains Dr. Susan Kutz, DVM, an instructor at UCVM. "Interested Nakoda youth will have an opportunity to help with both clinics.”

Dr. Kutz and postdoctoral associate Dr. Tessa Baker, DVM, partnered with Stoney Nakoda on the initiative. The funding allows them to broaden the experiences they can offer young people and the experiences that veterinary medicine students will gain through engagement with people in the community throughout the curriculum.

An advisory council of elders, educators, and others in the First Nations community was established at that time to guide the evolving program.

"Our elders teach them to be stewards of the land and stewards of the animals and we ensure we are upkeeping these customs and traditions," explains Melodie Bingham, guidance counsellor at the Morley Community School.

The program includes first-year vet med students viewing the documentary, Ahomapénî; Relations and Rez Dogs, produced by the Stoney Nakoda Audio Visual Club. The documentary discusses community perspectives on their dogs and how their dogs are viewed by outsiders, with guided discussions with AV Club members and a Nakoda Elder. Members of the second-year Doctor of Veterinary Medicine class will deliver the youth outreach sessions at the schools and hear from Elders and youth about traditional relationships with, and language around, animals in a two-way learning experience.

“Throughout the development of this program, consultation with the Stoney Nakoda community is key to understanding their needs and how UCVM can work with them around animal health, explains Dr. Baker. "We will continually assess the progress of the program against community objectives and adjust as necessary.”

Bingham says since its inception, it has been greeted with interest by grade 6 to 12 students. She says the hands-on demonstrations are always popular and it opens the door to understanding what other studies are required, like math and sciences, to pursue a career as a veterinarian.

"They do enjoy animals of all kinds and you hear the dreams and goals, the younger ones who say 'I want to be a veterinarian'. It takes a lot of work to get to that level of study, but that's our goal."

Ideally, students will be inspired to pursue post-secondary studies, then return to the community at some point.

“We are always looking for opportunities to spark an interest in post-secondary education and science careers,” says Doug Teed, a science teacher at the school. “Many of our students have a natural interest in animals because they might have cows, horses, dogs, and cats at home. I saw many students engaging with the veterinary students and staff, learning about the animals’ anatomy, as well as getting some hands-on experience learning to diagnose and treat various ailments and conditions.”

One of those students is Lecavaler Simeon.

“My favourite part of the vet experience was looking at different diseases through the microscope and learning how to wrap an animal's leg if the animal is injured,” says Simeon. “Thank you for coming and showing us all these cool things.”

By learning together, the researchers say students will develop stronger relationships with First Nations peoples, better understand the relationships Indigenous peoples have with their animals, and, as a result, become better veterinary practitioners.

Kate Atema, director of community grants and initiatives for PetSmart Charities of Canada, says it's part of a greater purpose supported here and elsewhere.

“To meet continued demand for quality, accessible care, we need to inspire more young people to pursue careers in veterinary medicine. We’re proud to support this meaningful effort to help veterinary students and young people partner to make an impact on pets, people, and communities.”

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