As one of few Inuit women to obtain a doctor of dentistry, Stacey Shiwak may very well become known as the tooth fairy in coastal Labrador communities.
The 41-year-old single mother from Happy Valley-Goose Bay is about to embark upon a stage in her life she’s been working towards for almost 20 years — providing access to oral care for children along the coast of Labrador.
She convocated Friday afternoon at Dalhousie University in Halifax from the doctor of dental surgery program and is ready to wage war on tooth decay.
“In general, it’s the most common chronic disease in children today and this affects an individual’s growth and development as well as their attitude toward health as an adult,” Shiwak told The Telegram Friday as she hurried around her room getting prepared for the ceremony.
“Historically, the communities in Nunatsiavut had limited access to dental care, which is core in reducing the disease,” she said.
In 2012, Health Canada and the First Nations Governance Information Centre released the First Nations Regional Health Survey. It identified several priority health issues for First Nations communities, including: 40 per cent have persistent oral pain, 55 per cent brush teeth daily compared to 74 per cent of non-Aboriginal Canadians, 23 per cent have untreated root caries (decay and crumbling) compared to seven per cent of non-Aboriginal Canadians, 44.7 per cent have calculus (tartar) compared to 10.7 per cent of non-Aboriginal Canadians and 39 per cent have no access to oral health care.
Over the past 10 years, Shiwak said, efforts from people such as Michelle Kinney, deputy minister of health and social development for the Nunatsiavut government, have resulted in dentists being hired to periodically service the Inuit communities to create stability in oral care in the population. It has met with some success, she said.
Messages left by The Telegram for the Nunatsiavut government were not returned.
“We have people in Nunatsiavut who have been trying to increase access to dental care because it was lacking for a very long time. And I’m a part of this as well. I have a return-in-service contract with them, so I will be going back home and servicing three of the communities along the coast of Labrador — Rigolet, Postville and Makkovik,” she said.
But Shiwak is quick to point out that, contract or not, coastal Labrador is where her roots are and it is where she wants to be. Both her parents are from Rigolet, but she and her siblings were born in Happy Valley-Goose Bay.
She left home at the age of 23 to complete the dental therapy program, which she graduated from in 1998. After a short time working, she went back to Dalhousie to do the dental hygiene program. She graduated in 2004.
At that time, Shiwak told her family she wasn’t ready to stop there. For the next 10 years — between working and school — she persevered to reach her dream.
“The fact I’ve done 12 years post-secondary education is actually a really great feeling, to be able to take that and to return home and be able to give something back to my community after all these years,” she said.
“I miss the lifestyle. I miss my family. I fully enjoy the coast of Labrador. The people are wonderful and it’s such rewarding work. I’m coming back to the things I love the most,” she said.
“I’ll be hunting and fishing, going to the cabin, out on the Ski-Doo in the winter, ice fishing. My dad takes me hunting. Fresh wild meat, the traditional way of life and being near my family is so close to my heart,” Shiwak says when asked what she misses most.
Most of her family was able to fly into Halifax for her convocation, but her mom had to stay home because of an illness.
Shiwak said she will send lots of photos and video to her mom back home.
Her dad, one of her sisters, two nieces and her 18-year-old son were by her side for the special day.
“I would eventually like to end up with my own dental clinic in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, and improve access to dental care in the region, and in conjunction with that continue to travel the coast. It’s my home. It’s who I am. It’s part of me,” said Shiwak, who will return to Labrador June 28.
“It’s something I would like to continue with until I’m too old to do it,” she said, laughing.
Shiwak said that even as a little girl she knew she wanted to do something to help people. Her late Aunt Carroll helped her find her way to dentistry, she said.
She said her aunt told her about the dental therapy program and from there she did some research, applied for the program, got accepted, graduated, practised up north, went back to school and hasn’t looked back.
“Through school and work, it really dawned on me that I found my calling. I never swayed from that decision from that point on and everything I’ve done since is to be here today,” said Shiwak, who has practised in Nunavut, Nain and Conne River over the years.
She said believing in yourself and not being afraid is key to getting where you want to be.
“It is so important. I always thought you work from the inside out. You have to have courage, ambition (and) motivation to go after your dreams, and by accomplishing that you may inspire others,” Shiwak said.
“When you are able to inspire others, including single moms, it feels great, and we need to encourage our children to pursue their dreams.”