Quebec’s first Aboriginal surgeon and first Aboriginal to be head of the Quebec Medical Association is embarking on the most ambitious journey of his life: to walk on foot to almost every Quebec First Nation while spreading a special message for youth and accumulating valuable traditional knowledge.
Spanning a period of five to six years, heading out for a few weeks each year when he can fit them in between running the Aboriginal Medicine Department at the Université de Montréal and practicing medicine in his home community of Betsiamites, Vollant is looking to walk or snowshoe to each of Quebec’s nations.
What Vollant is looking to accomplish on this ambitious journey is to change the fabric of Quebec’s Aboriginal country as we know it by bringing a message of wellness to each community’s youth, compiling traditional knowledge from the Elders and then documenting it so that it is not lost.
Though Vollant realizes that he could do this journey with the aid of dogs to pull his sled, he has chosen to do it on foot or snowshoes because that’s the way his Innu ancestors travelled. “I am going to be the dog,” he joked.
“This will be symbolic for me and for the youth I will meet. Tradition is very important and if our ancestors did this, we are just as capable of doing it. With determination and good mental strength, you can do just about anything you want in life and that’s the message I am going to tell the youth that I meet,” said Vollant.
The journey will also be very spiritual for Vollant as he got the idea from a vision he had while sleeping in a Spanish hospital. After falling ill during a hiking journey through Spain, Vollant said he had a vision in a dream of travelling from community to community by foot. He decided that this was his future and began to plan it.
On October 12, Vollant headed up to Kilometre Zero on the other side of the community of Natashquan to begin his journey. Waiting for him there were about 100 community members who had prepared a large camp with tents and a traditional feast.
“There was a sign that said “end of the road”, but for me it was the beginning because that’s where it begins for the Innu,” said Vollant.
Over the course of the next five to six years, Vollant is hoping to visit with the Abenaki, Algonquin, Cree, Attikamek, Wendat, Malecite, Miq’mac, Mohawks, the Inuit and other Innu. Throughout his journey, he will blog about his travels on his Facebook page, Innu Meshkenu, and will be putting up a website in November so that he can share what he has learned and show the world the Aboriginal peoples of Quebec.
Vollant has a number of goals for his journey with the first being to deliver a talk to the youth of each nation he visits to bring them some important messages. The first is that dreams can come true, that it is important to dream and advice on how to follow their dreams.
Considering what Vollant has accomplished in the medical field in his lifetime, he is a prime example of how this can be done.
Being a physician however, Vollant is also looking to discuss health and wellness with the youth as Quebec’s Aboriginal population is headed down a rocky road when it comes to health and wellbeing. His talks span topics such as tobacco, alcohol and drug use as well as physical activity and nutrition and cultural pride.
“Mental health issues are frequent amongst Aboriginals and the suicide rate is four times higher for us than the general population. Part of my talk addresses mental health prevention issues and also the suicide phenomena amongst the youth,” said Vollant.
Vollant said the physical activity and nutrition aspect of the talks that he gives are particularly important because of the diabetes epidemic amongst Aboriginals.
“Sixty percent of Aboriginal youth are overweight or obese and if this trend continues, the rate for diabetes is going to double in the next decade. It will be a kind of epidemic that I simply can not imagine, a total disaster in terms of health issues,” said Vollant.
As a physician, Vollant has his own means of bringing the message home to the youth, explaining to them every single complication that can arise from Type 2 diabetes such as as amputations, blindness and kidney failure. With kidney failure, dialysis is necessary for the patient to stay alive and there is a very high instance of this in the James Bay territory said Vollant.
According to Vollant, four decades ago, Aboriginals received 80% of their calories from proteins and lipids with only 20% coming from natural sugars such as berries. With Aboriginals now on the North American diet, 70-75% of what they consume is comprised of processed sugars coming from processed foods.
“We are not capable of dealing with this. We have been living off of the land for about 15,000-20,000 years and our bodies were adapted to the diet that was available here – meat, proteins and fats,” said Vollant.
To show the youth just what they are doing to themselves by staying on a diet that is so dramatically destroying the health of Aboriginal peoples, during his talks Vollant will present a tall, empty drinking glass and then fill it to the brim with white sugar because this is the equivalent amount of sugar that is in a two-litre bottle of cola or soda pop. In the past he said Quebec’s Aboriginal ancestors would only consume the equivalent of about one teaspoon a day of sugar.
Compounding excessive amounts of sugars with the high processed fat foods that the youth are consuming in fast foods, Vollant explained that the current North American diet that many Aboriginal youth are now consuming is like a perfect storm health-wise.
“According to statistics from Health Canada, 30 years ago heart disease was listed as the seventh highest killer for Aboriginal peoples in Canada. Researchers at that time believed Aboriginals had a gene that protected them from heart diseases. Now in 2010, heart disease is the number one killer of Aboriginals,” said Vollant.
Add a terrible diet to the amount of time that youth are now spending being inactive either watching TV or online and the result is a population that is headed for disaster and suffering.
While his cautionary messages for youth will be a large part of his community visits, Vollant is also looking to combine his knowledge and training as a physician with the traditional knowledge he hopes to learn from the Elders.
Fearful of losing thousands of years of traditional knowledge because it has not been documented or sufficiently transmitted from Elders to the youth, Vollant said he not only wants to meet with the Elders to document what he can about the trees and vegetation in each region, he wants to write a book for the youth about it.
By documenting the uses of traditional medicines, Vollant said that not only will the youth be able to learn the practices of his ancestors, but he will be able to get a better grasp of Quebec’s traditional medicines.
The research he will be doing into these traditional medicines will however be for the benefit of the people and not for selfish gain. Having already started to accumulate samples of many of the herbs and barks that have been used traditionally in Aboriginal medicine, Vollant will be working in partnership with the Pharmacology Department at the Université de Montreal to see what the active ingredients are in these items.
Should he discover something that is of commercial value, Vollant said the funds generated by it will go back to that community so that everyone can benefit from it.
In the long term, he is hoping to develop a database for medical professionals that would be able to indicate whether these traditional medicines would interact with the prescriptions that a patient is already taking.
Vollant frequently sees patients in his office who are taking upwards of seven different prescriptions for anything from diabetes to heart disease and who will often want to take traditional medicine on top of what they are already on.
“They will bring me the herbs and ask me about it thinking that I know everything, but we don’t have the science on this because it has never been studied,” said Vollant.
Though he realizes this might be a costly endeavour, should Vollant be able to obtain the funding, he would love to proceed with the project.
While on his walking journey, Vollant said another important goal will be to look at mending the relationships between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal communities.
Vollant feels that he has the perfect opportunity to share with both the Native and non-Native communities he will be travelling through and that this will be the perfect platform to mend burned bridges.
“I want these people to get to know who we are, that we are not just cigarette smugglers who put up blockades on bridges, that we are good people who have our own challenges. I want to give them another perspective and want me to speak to their youth as well,” said Vollant.
To follow Vollant’s journey, check out his “Innu Meshkenu” Facebook page.