January 9, 2009
By Colleen MacPherson
Photo by Michael Raine
Veterinarian Candace Grier-Lowe knows hers is a good story, one of hard work, determination and success in reaching lofty goals. She's just not sure it's a story worthy of national recognition.
On March 6, Grier-Lowe will be one of 14 Canadians who will receive a 2009 National Aboriginal Achievement Award in a televised ceremony from Winnipeg. The veterinary dentistry resident at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine (WCVM) has accomplished a lot in her 31 years, "but I don't feel like I've done anything special. I feel like I'm just being me."
Just being herself has taken Grier-Lowe from Thompson, Manitoba, where she grew up in close contact with her mother's family at Norway House Cree Nation, to the only person in the world in a combined dental residency and master of veterinary science degree program. And it is exactly where she wants to be.
"Growing up, I always knew I wanted to be a vet," said Grier-Lowe in a December interview with On Campus News. "I also knew there was only one veterinary school in western Canada so I didn't think it was a possibility."
As a result, Grier-Lowe said she put little effort into her high school years, not even bothering to take any classes that would qualify her for university entrance. "Then in Grade 10, I was in the guidance office, probably down there getting a late slip, and they had all the university calendars. I remember flipping through the U of S's and looking at the course requirements."
Talking to a school counselor about the possibility, Grier-Lowe said his response was "You shouldn't really think about that," suggesting instead she get an office job in Thompson after graduation. "I don't think he said it because I was native or because I was a woman. I think it was simply because I was a terrible student."
After working two years in a dental office, Grier-Lowe decided it was time to pursue her dream. She moved with her boyfriend, now her husband, to Winnipeg, took high school science classes in the summer and enrolled in an arts program at the University of Winnipeg. "I was really motivated to get good marks but I still hadn't taken any university-level science classes so I switched to the University of Manitoba after my first year.
"I lived at the university (of Manitoba). I studied all the time and got really good marks. I decided that if I'm going to do all this work, I'm going to do what I want to do."
Still with an eye to veterinary medicine, Grier-Lowe enrolled in an agriculture program in her second year, thinking she needed some exposure to animals. "Thompson is a mining town. There's not a pig or a cow for miles." And all her hard work paid off; she was accepted into the WCVM after two years studying agriculture.
After graduating from the WCVM in 2005, she accepted the position of clinical associate in the college's pet radiation oncology service, a job she held until last July when she became the first candidate in the Nestlé Purina dental residency which also requires completion of a master's degree. For Grier-Lowe, it is a perfect combination of the clinical and academic sides of veterinary medicine. She is scheduled to complete her program in 2011 "so I still have a long way to go."
Speaking about the aboriginal achievement award, Grier-Lowe said she was nominated by a friend and her family but she held out little hope she would win. "Why would they choose a vet? There are lots of aboriginal doctors out there doing great work. My sister has two kids—give the award to her for being a great mom. Or give it to those aboriginal nurses who work alone in northern nursing stations."
Grier-Lowe does admit her native ancestry presents particular challenges, sometimes because she is not instantly recognizable as being aboriginal and other times because of what she has accomplished. Although her mother is full Cree, "it happens to me regularly that people make racist comments without knowing I'm aboriginal. People make comments in front of me when they wouldn't say the same thing in front of my mother who is more obviously aboriginal. It's sometimes scary that people don't realize how much racism is out there.
"There are also times when I'm with non-native people I feel like the native person, and when I'm with native people I feel like the white person. But this award is important to me because mine is a good role-model story for kids who aren't that interested in school. The lesson is that it's never too late, but I've just always been myself. My mother, however, is absolutely thrilled. She says I'm living her dream—she always wanted to be a lawyer."
However reluctantly, Grier-Lowe will travel to Winnipeg in March to accept her National Aboriginal Achievement Award, all the time aware that her greatest accomplishments are yet to come—"I know that the most amazing thing I'm going to do is have kids some day."