What began as a summer job in Dr. Tom Pisz’s office has quickly turned into a huge step toward becoming a much needed new veterinarian in the North.

Kaitlyn Denroche, a longtime Yellowknifer, was the latest NWT student to join the Western College of Veterinary Medicine (WCVM) at the University of Saskatchewan this August.

Every year there’s one student from the Northern territories accepted out of the 78 seats.

Since 2008, there have been 13 northern residents accepted to the program and of those, four have come from the NWT.

Dr. Deborah Johnson, who graduated in 2012, now works at the Feedlot Health Management Services in Okotoks, Alta.

With Denroche, there are now two set to graduate from the doctorate program in the coming years, with third-year student Sasha Ross to complete her studies in 2020.

“I definitely think that the majority of what I learn here will be applicable up North as well,” Denroche said. “Some concerns (I am learning) are more specific to the North, like how to ship materials here or how to reach a specialist when you need one. But animals are very much the same everywhere.”

Denroche, 26, said she has gained valuable insight into Northern veterinary needs from her life experience. She spent much of her youth working as a stable hand at Pisz’s North Country Stables and worked in a summer job at the veterinarian’s Great Slave Animal Hospital, where she was exposed to the medical science of animal care.

She is also a past volunteer at the NWT SPCA and spent six months at a cattle ranch in northern Alberta, to learn about animal handling.

But she also said she aims to return home after graduating because “professionals of all stripes are badly needed.”

Ross, 28, described the NWT animal care situation as a “ton of pets, a ton animals but not a lot of veterinary services.” She said rural vet care has arisen in some of her studies, but the North is overlooked.

“I don’t think it is touched on much at all, and I think the North is kind of swept under the rug in a lot of ways,” Ross said.

“They don’t mention it. There is a lot of ‘If you work in Alberta, you will see this,’ or ‘If you work in Saskatchewan, you will see this.’ They never, ever mention the North, but I think that is because there is only one Northern student per class. ”

She said the North has unique animal care issues as it comes to staffing needs and a variety of animal welfare issues that might not apply most areas of the country. She also said the college does a good job at focusing on some of the parasites and diseases which can come from wild animals and spread to domestic animals and people – something that she feels is more specific to the North.

“I think from a public health perspective we have some unique challenges and some interesting emerging diseases,” she said, noting for example diseases that can spread from beluga whales to wild meat sources and to dogs and people.

The GNWT reports that there are 28 licensed veterinarians in the NWT, however not all necessarily reside in the NWT.

Among them include Dr. Michelle Tuma, the last NWT graduate to completed the WCVM program, in 2014. She is now the veterinarian at the NWT SPCA and said it’s special when an NWT student gets accepted because for much of the past decade the GNWT has not provided funding for a seat at the college like other jurisdictions, despite the need for more clinics.

“There is definitely a need for more veterinary clinics in the Northwest Territories because there are only a handful of vet clinics in our territory right now,” said Tuma. “What is really great about people from the North going to vet school is that we already know what it is like here and we know what to expect when we come back. With Kaitlyn getting into vet school, that is amazing because she will have more reasons to come home, practice here and help animals here.”

Tuma, who’s licensed in the NWT and Nunavut, said there are unique issues that apply to Northern veterinarian services. This is especially the case when servicing remote communities that often lack access to spay or neutering and preventable vaccinations for domestic animals that encounter wild animals with rabies or distemper.

Despite the high need for vets, the GNWT doesn’t provide annual funding for the college to preserve a seat for an NWT student, similar to what the four western provincial governments and the Government Yukon provide for their applicants. Instead, when an NWT applicant is accepted into the program, the college goes to the government to seek funding support for their seat.

“There are just not enough applicants from NWT or Nunavut for them to keep it in their budget to fund us, which is what I was told when I applied,” Tuma said.

Tuma said when looking at Whitehorse with a similar population as Yellowknife, the Yukon capital has three to four vet clinics while Yellowknife has the only two veterinarian clinics in the NWT. Those two clinics – Great Slave Animal Hospital and Yellowknife Veterinary Clinic – have one veterinarian each. In other areas of the NWT, mobile clinics are often the norm and licensed practitioners often come and go as they can be licensed in other jurisdictions at the same time.

Douglas Freeman, college dean, said the institution takes in students from four different western provinces, as well as the North, and international locations, too. As such, the college aims to provide a broad education on animal care and there isn’t a focus on regional content in the curriculum. However, he said the college is trying to build relations with remote areas in the North, including Indigenous communities so that needs specific across the North can be better met.

“The curriculum doesn’t really emphasize one regional area over another and to get licensed you have to be well versed in all species from Nunavut to the tropics,” Freeman said. “You need to have the educational foundation to do all of that.”

Freeman said, however, that the college is working to build partnerships and focus on veterinary care for more remote communities, which may apply to the North. He said there are unique issues of climate change, and human, animal and environmental impacts related to the outbreak of diseases, which can have more intensity in the North because people live close to the land.

“We are in the process of strengthening our focus on Indigenous communities in the North,” he said, noting that the college has helped to operate remote veterinary clinics in La Ronge, Sask., every spring and fall for the past four years.

“Things like tuberculosis or wildlife diseases can potentially have an impact on the safety of Northern country foods. Uncontrolled dog populations in Indigenous communities is another concern that can become a huge public health issue.”

Clarification:  One seat is available to a student from one of the three northern territories each academic year. The GNWT does not need to sponsor a student annually to the college because there cannot be an NWT student every year. When the seat is filled by an NWT student, the GNWT sponsors the student. Although the sponsorship of the seat was put on hold for a few years, it was reinstated in 2013 and has been available for NWT students since that time. For reasons of privacy, ECE was unable to provide the amount awarded to vet college students.

Simon Whitehouse

Simon Whitehouse came to Yellowknife to work with Northern News Services in 2011. Simon obtained his journalism education at Algonquin College and the University of Ottawa. Simon can be reached at...