In April, two BrainReach North volunteers, Megan and Sébastien travelled to Waskaganish to teach neuroscience to indigenous youth in their community. For Sébastien, this was his second trip north with BRN, whereas it was a first for Megan. Similarly to his trip to Kuujjuarapik last year, this trip was a product of circumstance; Shaun McMahon, the principal with whom he was generously provided accommodation last year, had since transferred to the Cree community of Waskaganish. Fortuitously, this also happened to be the same community in which Sébastien had spent two months helping prepare high school students for ministerial science exams three years prior!
With the go-ahead from the BRN executive, Sébastien reached out to Shaun to look into the feasibility of a teaching trip to Waskaganish. Given the positive experience collaborating the previous spring, Shaun was eagerly on-board, and instrumental in ensuring the trip was a success. From trip dates, to presenting the BRN platform to teachers, to the day-to-day teaching schedule with the help of Miranda Salt, his contributions were invaluable.
With their bags packed full of teaching materials, they boarded their early morning flight to Val-d’Or. BRN had been coordinating with the Indigenous Health Professionals Program (IHPP) at McGill to orchestrate a joint visit with their representative, Alex Gray. Sébastien had been acquainted with Alex previously, however he could not seem to see Alex on the plane. Luckily, following their layover in Val-d’Or, Alex sat himself near where they were and this time Sébastien could identify him – a few months of growing-out one’s hair can really change someone’s look!
Once landed, the trio was picked up by the school’s caretaker, Jimmy, as they only had a matter of minutes before their meeting with the teachers. Following this, they were treated to some traditional soup and bannock before jumping into a packed schedule of teaching.
Alex presents the Indigenous Health Professions Program (IHPP) at McGill
For the next two days, Alex presented the IHPP, and the BRN volunteers taught neuroscience content to students ranging from Sec 1 to Sec 5 (grades 7 to 11). Every class started with Alex greeting the students in his traditional language, Mi’kmaq. Given this language shares an Algonquian root with Cree, students enjoyed trying to decipher what he was saying, as some of the words were quite similar! Starting with the IHPP presentation set a respectful and open tone for the learning session, as well as stimulated the students’ curiosity. Sébastien then presented a general introduction on science, the brain, and how the nervous system functions.
The latter was exemplified by using Backyard Brains’ human-to-human interface, permitting Megan (and perhaps overly eager students!) to shock Sébastien’s muscles into action. He then presented how the brains of different animals have different properties, encouraging students to explain their reasoning as to which brain belonged to which animal. To their surprise, the students were particularly good at pointing out polar bear brains! Although these animals do not venture as far south as Waskaganish, the students were well aware of their potent sense of smell. With a little guidance, they were able to identify a rather large brain with substantial olfactory bulbs (a part of the brain responsible for the sense of smell), which was that of the polar bear. Megan then presented the gross neuroanatomy of the brain, including its various lobes and their functions, and how these integrate to permit us to think, perceive the world, and interact with it. Throughout the lessons, the team encouraged students to ask questions to help them engage with the scientific process. They also prepared activities, such as demonstrating knee-jerk reflexes, brain slices prepared for viewing under microscopes, and Alex’s healthcare Jeopardy game.
Sébastien and Megan present the human-human interface (HHI) from Backyard Brains
On their last day, one of the local teachers, Henry Wischee, intercepted the group on their walk back to the hotel, offering to take them on a tour of Waskaganish. They had the chance to see the facilities of the community, many of which had not yet been built the last time Sébastien visited. They also drove to the Rupert river rapids, which offered a beautiful view of the ice slowly breaking and churning in the waters. For Megan, this afforded her the opportunity to feel immersed in the lives of the community members, seeing where they lived, played, learned, and embraced their cultural traditions. After packing their bags, Jimmy drove them to the airport. After a brief photo-op, they said their goodbyes to some of the students they had taught over the past three days, who were waiting for their flight to Winnipeg for an indigenous youth summit. As the plane flew south, Megan could see the tip of the James Bay, and enjoyed the rolling hills of the Canadian shield (while Alex and Sébastien took brief naps).
Our sincerest thanks go out to Malosree and Ana, the co-presidents of BRN, as well as the rest of the admin team, for giving us this opportunity. In Megan’s case, this gave her the chance to visit Northern Quebec for the first time, and in Sébastien’s to revisit old friends. We both hope to keep returning to the North, to deepen our ties to its peoples and appreciate its nature.
Written by Sébastien & Megan
Edited by Airi
LINKS FOR TEACHERS
Learn more about our bloggers on the "Meet Our Team" page.