Dr. Sandy MacDonald spent nearly 18 years as a doctor in Nunavut and recently set up the first bursary at Memorial University that is specifically for Indigenous medical students. (Photo courtesy of Sandy MacDonald)

Former Nunavut doctor creates bursary to encourage Inuit medical students

‘We want people in Nunavut to have Nunavummiut who are [their] physicians,’ says Dr. Sandy MacDonald

By David Lochead

After spending nearly 18 years as a doctor in Nunavut, Dr. Sandy MacDonald said he wants to give back to the territory by helping Nunavummiut go to medical school. Nearing the end of his career, he decided to do that by creating a bursary at, Memorial University, the same school he attended.

MacDonald said he set up the bursary to encourage more Inuit and Indigenous youth to pursue the medical field. As well, he said that having Inuit doctors in Nunavut could help address the territory’s specific health-care challenges.

“We want people in Nunavut to have Nunavummiut who are [their] physicians,” MacDonald said.

MacDonald established the Dr. W. Alexander (Sandy) MacDonald Bursary for Indigenous Learners at Memorial University. It is for Inuit and Indigenous medical students at Memorial University who graduated high school in Nunavut or Labrador. The preferred candidate will have financial need for the bursary, which is close to $1,500 for the year, MacDonald said.

MacDonald, who is originally from Cape Breton, N.S., came to Nunavut permanently in 2001 after doing short-term work in the territory as a family doctor and anesthesia specialist previously. During that time, he served as the territory’s medical director, chief of staff, as well as a clinician and family doctor. In 2018, he left Nunavut and now resides in Collingwood, Ont., where he still practises medicine part time.

With 85 per cent of Nunavut’s population being Inuit, there are cultural challenges for medical staff in Nunavut who are not from the territory, MacDonald said. They include not being able to speak Inuktitut and needing a translator, or failing to understand what people’s lives are like in smaller communities, he said.

Having more Inuit doctors would also be a benefit to Nunavut’s long-term doctors who are not Inuit or from the territory, such as MacDonald was when he worked in the region.

“I think it really helped us out and made us better understand,” MacDonald said of Inuit medical staff working with those who are not originally from Nunavut.

“The more Inuit doctors, nurses or [other medical staff], the better for everybody,” he said.

One of the challenges for health care in Nunavut is poverty, according to MacDonald.

According to a 2018 Statistics Canada report, over one-fifth of Nunavummiut live in poverty, almost double the rate of Canada as a whole.

“Their health problems are problems of poverty,” MacDonald said.

He cites tuberculosis as an example. Nunavut has the highest rate of tuberculosis in the country, with Inuit being 290 times more likely to contract the disease than non-Indigenous Canadians, according to a 2019 report by the Public Health Agency of Canada.

Geography is another challenge in Nunavut. While MacDonald said the medical equipment in Nunavut is comparable to anywhere in the country, that cannot change the difficulties of reaching remote communities quickly.

He gives the example of getting hit by a vehicle in Pond Inlet compared to in Ottawa. In Ottawa, the victim will be in a trauma centre within 20 minutes to an hour, MacDonald said, while that is not possible for someone in a small and more isolated community.

Because the territory’s population is only about 38,000, MacDonald said he realizes that having more Inuit and Nunavummiut doctors will not happen immediately. But MacDonald said Nunavummiut are smart, pragmatic and will do well, and he hopes this bursary helps contribute to the territory’s climb.

“I’m very optimistic about Nunavut.”

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(7) Comments:

  1. Posted by John W Paul Murphy on

    Thank you, Sir. I remember you well from my days in Iqaluit and applaud all medical staff who reside here and for so many years. Your contribution to our health has been appreciated. I am not Inuk, but see the benefit of your ongoing contribution to the Inuit of Nunavut. I applaud you. Stay safe Sir.

    • Posted by Daniel Lambert on

      congrats to your devoted life in Nunavut.we need more souls like you.

  2. Posted by Nunavutmiut on

    Thank You Doctor! This will most definitely help with our Elders who require medical attention and do not speak English.

  3. Posted by Iqaluit Mom on

    Thank you Dr. MacDonald! You were always an excellent doctor up here, straightforward and gave wonderful care to Nunavummiut.

    You are missed!

  4. Posted by Allan Mullin on

    On a personal note Sandy, I enjoyed the conversations we had. Your charisma will long be remembered. On a professional level, you excelled and gave Nunavut many years of service. Many times you went to different venues to support as well as the Inuit carvers. I remember many times hoping you would be ok because of how much you gave of yourself. I and so many more wish you all the best.

  5. Posted by Carol Ann MacNeil on

    I remember working with you Dr MacDonald in Diagnostic Imaging. It was a pleasure! I was there from 1999 until 2010. This is such a nice gesture for you. You are a very dedicated doctor! I’m sure the Nunavumiut are very appreciative of you.

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