GILLES PINETTE’S cluttered office space features two items that set it apart from a doctor’s usual pack rat mess—a crumpled paper bag of sweet grass on the desk and a medicine wheel tacked to the wall. The long, braided strands of prairie greenery are a tool of his trade, just like the stethoscope the 30-year-old Métis physician wears around his neck. The traditional hidewrapped, quartered circle is a reminder of his heritage and belief that there is more to healing the sick than simply treating their ills. “Our traditional healers had cures for a lot of sicknesses, but they didn’t just give them to people and walk away,” says Pinette. “They understood that there’s a connection between the mind and the body, the spirit and the body. I don’t think that’s controversial, I just think that’s good medicine.”
The need for balance—emotional, physical, intellectual, spiritual—is a favourite theme for the Winnipeg physician, the desire to broaden the medical profession’s outlook, a mission. “Aboriginal people live, on average, eight to 10 years less than the rest of the population. They are more likely to die young; they are more likely to have chronic diseases,” he says, rattling off a disturbing list of health problems that plague native Canadians.
Just five years out of the University of Manitoba medical school, Pinette, who combines a doctor’s breezy air of authority with the spiky-haired, black-jeans look of a student, has built himself a profile that must be the envy of physicians twice his age. There is the monthly medical column in Aboriginal and community newspapers across the country, a series of books on native health issues like diabetes and
suicide prevention, a stint as host of Medicine Chest on the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network and this year’s National Aboriginal Achievement Award. For Pinette, the interest the public at large—not just First Nations members—has in his lowkey mixing of modern medicine and traditional healing teachings speaks of a health system that’s not meeting the needs of patients. “People are starving for holistic care,” he says.
Raised in the village of Binscarth, 3001cm northwest of Winnipeg, where his family ran the local service station and restaurant, Pinette says medicine was just a vague ambition until the deaths of his grandfathers, and a close friend, at age 19, from pancreatic cancer. His experiences at U of M—where the scant information med students received about native healing came from non-Aboriginal profs—sharpened Pinette’s desire to use his heritage in his daily practice. Today, he lectures at the school and is associate director of its mentoring, recruiting and support program for Aboriginal students.
Catching a break between patients at the busy downtown clinic where he spends part of his work week, Pinette is frank about his large ambitions. More books (he has his own publishing company), TV shows and CD-ROMs that will help improve the health of all Canadians, and provide for his growing family—he and his wife Carolyn are expecting their third child this month. Like a stone thrown into the still waters of a pond, Pinette says, small actions can have far-reaching effects. “I’m just creating ripples,” he adds. “I think one person can make a difference.”
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