North of 60: Volunteering in Canada’s far North with Veterinarians without Borders

For those who volunteer in the non-profit sector, delivering veterinary health care in remote communities comes with some unique challenges. Add to this the complexities of navigating a global pandemic and these challenges are suddenly magnified. Reflecting on our recent work with Veterinarians Without Borders Northern Health Initiative, I believe for those drawn to this work the challenges add to the adventure and the deep sense of satisfaction volunteers experience.  

Over 16 days in September and October 2021 a small group of volunteer veterinarians and registered veterinary technologists travelled to three communities in the Northwest Territories and Nunavut region of Canada: Fort Liard, Wrigley and Taloyoak. Upon arrival in Yellowknife, we were met by VWB liaison and coordinator, Dr. Michelle Tuma who briefed us on the communities we would be visiting, reviewed protocols and coordinated our equipment and supplies. The next morning four excited volunteers got an early start for the long drive to their first community clinic in Fort Liard, NWT. During the 790 km drive, wildlife sightings were frequent including numerous bison, several bald eagles, a black bear, a fox and a lynx making it feel like a safari! Upon arrival, volunteers went to work setting up the mobile clinic in the Environment and Natural Resources shop before enjoying a delicious meal prepared by our wonderful community liaison, Christine and heading to bed to recharge in preparation for our first day.

The Northwest Territory Team

The Fort Liard clinic was well received, in part due to the ongoing presence of VWB in this community and part due to the advocacy and commitment of our community liaisons. During our four-day health clinic, the team saw 53 animals for health exams and vaccines and performed 8 canine neuters and 3 canine spays. Of the 53 animals examined, 5 were cats which is somewhat unique as cats are less commonly brought into the Northern Health Clinics. While we were somewhat disappointed to perform only 3 spay surgeries, the team was encouraged that two of these surgeries were on mature females that had delivered pups just 6 weeks earlier. Without this intervention, these females would most certainly deliver at least one more litter before VWB’s return in 2022.

Dr. Rob Klemmensen and a patient from Fort Liard

Our next stop was the community of Wrigley, NWT where 26 animals were examined over a 2-day health clinic. Surgeries performed included a mammary mass resection and one spay as well as one sedation for porcupine quill removal. Despite being a quieter clinic, the team was well received. By ensuring an ongoing presence in these communities, it is hoped the VWB Northern Health Initiative will slowly and steadily build relationships and become a trusted partner in animal health and welfare.

Bison en route to Fort Liard and Wrigley NWT

Excited about our final clinic in Taloyoak, Nunavut, the team settled in for the long journey back to Yellowknife where they would restock supplies and fly equipment by cargo to this remote northern community. Located on the Boothia Peninsula in the Kitikmeot region of Nunavut, Taloyoak or Talurjuaq is the northernmost community in mainland Canada. With a population of just over 1000 residents, the community is serviced only by air and an annual supply sealift.

A patient named “Littlest Polar Bear”

Given the remoteness of Taloyoak and the delays associated with weather, it should come as no surprise that transporting cargo for a mobile veterinary clinic can come with a few headaches. Our anesthesia equipment arrived 36 hours after the team and medical supplies. To make the most of our short time in the community we got busy setting up our mobile worksite at the recreation center hall and then went for a walk to introduce ourselves and the project to the many puppy guardians we had noticed on arrival in the Hamlet. It was during these home visits that the team met Maya and Angel, nursing mothers of two recent litters owned by the same family. After offering to do health checks, vaccinate and deworm the pups, the owner expressed his excitement and gratitude that we could help prevent more litters by spaying Maya and Angel. Saying, “I don’t want this to keep happening but we have no way to prevent it”. He had heard a group of vets was coming to Taloyoak but said “I didn’t believe it would happen”. Maya and Angel were two of the 6 canine spays performed along with 6 canine neuters, one trauma treatment and 64 health exams/vaccinations in Taloyoak. 

RVT Rose Tubman with two of Maya and Angel’s pups

Documenting the specifics of our experience serving the Northern Health Initiative provides an overview of the logistics of these volunteer-driven projects from the communities visited to the number of animals treated. However it fails to express what happens between the “logistics” and the “specifics”. The challenge of dead batteries, flat tires and keys broken off in motel room locks. The bloating surgery patient and the search for a garden hose. The visits to the dump to look for (and find) bears. The experience of eating caribou shepherds pie in Canada’s northernmost community. Watching a couple of veterinarians running about, waving their hands and almost missing the flight when one of their Nunavut isolation exemptions arrived mere minutes before takeoff. And, for certain volunteers, the nightmares induced by yet another COVID nasal swab will remain long after the other memories of this trip are forgotten. 

The Nunavut Team

I often wonder what it is that draws those of us who love this work, to do it. The logistics and conditions we work in can be challenging. For many, it involves using their hard-earned holiday time to travel to and participate in a volunteer project. There may be out-of-pocket expenses that volunteers absorb. While we have come to expect some stress, some swearing and some unexpected roadblocks along the way we have learned the rewards of this work outweigh any negatives. Along with sharing, laughter and the opportunity to be part of a team of generous and adventurous individuals, using our professional skills to serve with no expectation of anything in return, “fills our cups” in a way that needs to be experienced to be understood. Jessica Johnson, a registered veterinary technologist at the Calgary Animal Referral and Emergency Center and a repeat volunteer with VWB describes how after years of working in a specialty practice she felt she was missing out on helping a certain subset of patients and their owners. She says, “I found that through volunteering I can not only change the lives of animals and their owners I also get to learn all about different ways of life and veterinary medicine”. It is a privilege to be invited into these communities, to experience a unique culture within the confines of Canada and to experience the joy that comes from sharing the gift of your skill and of your time. On behalf of the 2021 Northern Health Initiative volunteers, thank you Veterinarians without Borders for this opportunity.

May your hands be busy and your heart filled with gratitude.