Jesse Byrne has a vision of becoming a medical doctor who will begin his career serving Indigenous people in remote northern communities.
When he learned of an opportunity to take part in this year’s Students on Ice program, he jumped at the opportunity to visit some of these places to help confirm that’s what he really wants to do.
Byrne, who turns 21 in September, is about to enter his final year of biochemistry at Memorial University. He plans to then pursue graduate studies in medicine.
He heard about the Students on Ice program in high school, but never felt the time was right to apply. Earlier this year, he received an email outlining how the program was trying to recruit more students with First Nation ancestry to take part.
In late July, he was part of a group of 131 high school and university students who went on a two-week Arctic excursion with stops in Greenland and Northern Canadian destinations within the Arctic Circle.
With his family among the founding members of the Qalipu Mi’kmaq First Nation Band, Byrne saw the program as an ideal way for him to visit the northern communities he wants to help and further explore the meaning of his own Indigenous culture.
The allure of the north was deeply instilled in Byrne as a young child listening to the stories of his parents, both of whom worked in Northern Ontario in their younger years.
“Ever since I was little, this idea of being up north and being in this wild untouched kind of spot was something that appealed to me,” he said. “This opportunity was a huge motivator for me to push harder towards what I want. I want to pursue my interest in medicine and to start off working with those smaller Indigenous communities that most of the times get forgotten about or pushed aside.”
During the expedition, Byrne tried to put himself in situations that forced him into unfamiliar experiences.
He took part in a songwriting workshop and performed a song he wrote during those sessions in front of the others on the voyage. He had played in bands in high school, but said he was not usually one to pick up a guitar and play for a crowd.
“It was well-received and something I will take with me the rest of my life,” he said.
Visiting various Inuit communities, Byrne got to try local delicacies such as raw narwhal and Arctic char.
He really found himself outside of his comfort zone when they visited Pond Inlet and he took part in a seal-skinning workshop with some Inuit elders. He was quickly put in his place when one of the elders scolded him for throwing away a layer of rubbery skin between the furry pelt and the seal blubber.
She told him it was tradition to eat that portion of the animal raw.
The next piece Byrne cut off was a relatively large chunk he humbly chewed.
“I didn’t find it that bad,” he said. “It was a little rubbery, but you just chew on it once or twice and then it’s down the hatch.
“I’d do it again.”
He even met a fellow student on the trip who taught him some basics of the Inuktitut language spoken by the Inuit people of Northern Canada.
“All these experiences were things you normally wouldn’t be doing at home,” he said. “It was amazing. I was blown away every day and the people we were around made it so much better.”
In fact, Byrne said he found himself apologizing to everyone towards the end of the adventure because he could not find any new words to describe how incredible each new experience was as the days went on.
“I started using the same words every day and it was not doing it justice anymore,” he said. “Even now, looking at the pictures and the different things I wrote in my journal, it was all so surreal. It was like something you’d see in a documentary and not with your own eyes.”
The expedition certainly achieved its purpose for Byrne. He has a new resolve to pursue his medicine aspirations and a deeper appreciation of his own Indigenous culture.
“Seeing how proud the Inuit were and how well versed they were with their culture made me see how far behind we are with our own culture,” he said. “A lot of things (about the Mi’kmaq culture) were lost along the way. It’s good people are starting to take it back and I want to be a part of that movement.”
He urged any young person who has the opportunity to apply for the Students on Ice program to go for it.
“Just do it, without any hesitation,” he said. “There is no such thing as not getting anything out of it. You could do that trip 100 times and get something different out of it every time.”