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Portraits honour the stories of Indigenous MD graduates

Posted on October 5, 2023
Portraits honour the stories of Indigenous MD graduates

At NOSM University’s inaugural convocation ceremony on May 26, 2023, Dr. Ryan McConnell was one of two physicians presented with a striking portrait by Anishinaabe and Kanienkehaka artist, Elliott Doxtater-Wynn, a member of Bay of Quinte Mohawk who grew up in Six Nations of the Grand River. The portraits are large—four feet by three feet—and incorporate imagery from the graduates’ personal stories.

The artworks were part of the CIBC Indigenous Learner Leadership Award, which provided each learner with $20,000 and a professional development budget and supported them with networking resources during their fourth year of MD studies. These prestigious awards are presented to two self-identified Indigenous learners, one based at NOSM University in Thunder Bay and one in Sudbury.

“It was an honour to receive the CIBC Indigenous Learner Leadership Award and the portrait,” says Dr. McConnell, who, like Doxtater-Wynn, is a member of Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte. “Although there was such a great sense of community growing up and so much support at home, I think a lot of Indigenous kids don’t see medicine as a pathway. When I was accepted into medical school, I felt honoured to be one of the students selected for the Indigenous stream. Being selected for the Indigenous Learner Leadership Award was icing on the cake and is something for which I’m very proud of and grateful.”

Artist Doxtater-Wynn also says that he felt “honoured” to be involved. He wanted the artworks to celebrate the graduates. “It’s a major accomplishment for an individual to become a doctor,” he says. “Thinking of the grandeur of what their accomplishment was, I wanted to create something that could be an heirloom, and something that would reflect their story when they go into their own practice. I felt that the best way to honour the students for their achievements was to do something on a large scale. The artworks are four times the size of what was originally planned.”

Doxtater-Wynn adds that the awards place value on high-calibre Indigenous contributions not only to medicine, but also to art. “An opportunity like this emphasizes the importance of Indigenous art and its inclusion. It also values Indigenous education, knowledge, and philosophy, which were central to developing the portraits. Indigenous contributions are viable contributions.”

With a background in Indigenous storytelling, Indigenous knowledge, and education, Doxtater-Wynn conducted interviews with both physicians prior to painting their portraits. The interviews gave the graduates opportunities to “speak from the heart and voice their stories,” he says. Doxtater-Wynn also researched and incorporated teachings specific to the graduates’ heritages; for Dr. McConnell, these included the History of Six Nations, Dish with One Spoon Wampum, Kanienkahaka, Tree of Peace, The Great Law, and The Eclipse and the 50 Chiefs.

Dr. McConnell says that he wasn’t initially aware that he would receive a portrait as part of the award. As soon as he found out, he looked up the artist’s website, and he’s been envisioning Doxtater-Wynn’s art on his wall ever since.

He finds the inclusion of his story to be meaningful: “For me, the most special part is the integration of my family. Along the bottom of the painting Elliott was able to integrate photos of my dad and I, my mom and I, and of my siblings. That personal touch was appreciated. There are also pieces of symbolism that represent my community. Elliott was able to integrate the hydro lines that are in our backyard and the shoreline of the Bay of Quinte. I talked about the community as something that was important to me, and I was so happy to see it incorporated.”

Now that he has graduated from NOSM University’s MD program, Dr. McConnell will complete a Family Medicine Residency at Queen’s University. The program has a rural focus, and he is excited to be based in Belleville, close to his family and community.

“Being an Indigenous physician is something I don’t take for granted. I hope I can be a role model for kids in my community and other Indigenous kids across Canada. I think more Indigenous representation in medicine is a good thing. I hope I can be part of a culture of change,” Dr. McConnell says.

The CIBC Indigenous Learner Leadership Award was established in 2021 to recognize fourth-year MD students who have demonstrated leadership qualities within the Indigenous community at NOSM University. It is part of a $150,000 donation from CIBC to promote and recognize Indigenous learner leadership and mentorship.

“CIBC aims to create a world without limits to ambition. Through CIBC Foundation, CIBC is advancing its commitment to supporting underserved communities and organizations that are helping to create greater economic inclusion for all. We’re proud to support NOSM University’s social accountability mandate with this award for Indigenous learners, faculty, and alumni in the North,” says Ronan Ryan, Executive Director, CIBC Foundation.

Dr. Tara Wilson from Constance Lake First Nation was also honoured with a portrait. Wilson and Doxtater-Wynn spoke with CBC Radio about the award and the artwork.

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