Sask. veterinarians are building bridges to northern Indigenous communities

Indigenous pet owners in rural and northern Saskatchewan often face limited options when trying to take care of their precious fur babies.

It’s a problem that has bothered veterinarian Jordan Woodsworth for years. That’s why she started a program to help bring service to remote areas of the province in 2014. 

And now thanks to a $405,000 grant from PetSmart Charities of Canada, it will be able to help more pets in remote parts of the province as part of a three-year pilot project.

“I really think it’s important for us as a profession and for us as a society to think about … the responsibilities that we have to keep everyone healthy everywhere, regardless of where they live and what their background is,” said Woodsworth, the director of the Northern Engagement and Community Outreach (NECO) team at the University of Saskatchewan’s Western College of Veterinary Medicine.

Pets in need

As soon as she graduated from the veterinary college in 2008, she had people from the La Ronge area asking her to provide service in a region where the nearest veterinary clinic was about 240 kilometres away in Prince Albert. 

“Because the education programs for both veterinarians and [veterinary technicians] are lengthy and demanding and all of those things, there’s only a small portion of people who graduate yearly who stay within the province,” Woodsworth told Stefani Langenegger on CBC’s The Morning Edition this week. 

That ‘s led to a shortage of veterinarians in the province. And many of those who stay are in the more populated southern half of Saskatchewan. 

That’s why Woodsworth started NECO in 2014, which offered a spay-neuter program in La Ronge and the nearby communities of Air Ronge and the Lac La Ronge Indian Band.

LISTEN | Veterinarians, Indigenous communities team up to expand animal care

The Morning Edition – Sask9:25Veterinarians, Indigenous communities team up to expand animal care in the north

Veterinarian services are already stretched to a crisis point in Saskatchewan, but access to animal care is even more limited in the north. Now, veterinarians are hoping a new pilot program will help them address the need for that care in Saskatchewan.

It has since expanded to biannual clinics offering a variety of services for animals. And in 2021, the team began offering a clinic in Île à la Crosse, a community located 380 kilometres northwest of Prince Albert. 

Woodsworth said NECO’s approach is the first of its kind in Canada. It involves a registered veterinary technologist leading remote veterinary care. 

Students at Western College of Veterinary Medicine as well as volunteers help operate the clinics. 

The Northern Engagement and Community Outreach team at the University of Saskatchewan holds a clinic in La Ronge. The veterinarians, veterinary technicians and volunteers provide animal health care in Saskatchewan’s remote and northern communities. (Submitted by Jordan Woodsworth)

The clinics are always well attended, according to Chief Tammy Cook-Searson of the Lac La Ronge Indian Band.

“I know in May — the last clinic that they had — it booked up,” Cook-Searson told The Morning Edition. “I know that they’re stretched thin, but it does mean a lot because that way you have access.” 

Their latest clinic in the La Ronge area started on Aug. 17 and runs through Aug. 20. It also booked up early.

Getting care into communities

The success of the program is what helped Woodsworth and NECO land the funding partnership with PetSmart Charities of Canada.

Robyn Jaynes, director of veterinary affairs at PetSmart Charities of Canada, said getting registered veterinary technologists into communities is essential to increasing accessible and affordable care.

“This partnership takes essential veterinary care services into communities that have been excluded from the system. The program addresses barriers associated with geography, as well as the veterinary shortages, that impact so many communities across Canada,” Jaynes said in a press release provided to CBC. 

Woodsworth said the money will allow the organization to develop a more active presence in a wider range of regions as well as tailoring the program to each community’s specific needs. 

As part of the funding from PetSmart, NECO is already working on new partnerships that will bring clinics to four more communities in northern Saskatchewan. 

Provincial legislation regulates who is able to provide health care to animals, but legislation doesn’t always mesh well with reality, according to Woodsworth.

A woman with a stethoscope, wearing a black shirt and a white mask examines two dogs held in the arms of a woman.
Veterinarian Jordan Woodsworth meets canine patients during one of NECO’s clinics in La Ronge. (Submitted by Brandon White)

“We know that folks who are local to communities that don’t have regular access do provide care,” she said.
“Because what are you meant to do if there’s an emergency? Somebody’s going to respond, right? Nobody wants to see animals suffering.”

Woodsworth said it may be worth formalizing aspects of providing care if there are locations where veterinarians do not operate. 

Cook-Searson said it’s helpful to have locals that can lend a hand but that the expertise of trained veterinarians is irreplaceable. 

“It’s so important for us to bring more vets to the north,” she said. 

And Woodsworth said her love of northern Saskatchewan has reinforced her dedication and helped her push to fix the gaps in society that are there as a result of systemic problems. 

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