Record number of Indigenous students begin medical studies at University of Manitoba
Entering their first year of medical school, two Métis women aspire to help Indigenous people access better and more equitable health care in Manitoba.
Kirsten Fleury, 24, and Caitlin Wachal, 32, took part in the white coat ceremony on Wednesday as the Max Rady College of Medicine at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg welcomed its largest cohort of students indigenous never – with 17 out of 110 self-identifying as indigenous.
“I still feel like everything is very surreal,” Fleury said after reciting the doctor’s promise and receiving her white coat – a step she had been looking forward to for several years.
“It was exciting and also terrifying that today is finally the day. It’s real. I walked in.”
Fleury’s medical aspirations began in high school, but she said her early years in college were tough and shook her self-confidence.
She began working with Métis professor Michelle Driedger in an Indigenous research mentorship program at the University of Manitoba, getting involved in projects related to Métis health and wellness. She said the experience combined her passion for healthcare with her desire to work with her people and culture.
“It was then that I was able to really get passionate about Indigenous health and meet all the people I was able to meet thanks to the Indigenous community at U of M who really pushed me to deciding yes is something that I think I can pursue, ”Fleury said.
She hopes to someday work as a physician with Indigenous peoples – whether in a clinic or in a research setting – to simply help improve someone’s day or to gather information that will lead to systemic change and policies that will benefit the Indigenous peoples of the province.
“Challenging some of the health gaps”
Equally significant was Wednesday’s ceremony for Wachal, who called the moment she donned her white coat “humility and excitement.”
“I know a lot of aboriginal physicians have paved the way to make a place for us and support us on our journey before we are even accepted, so it’s a really great privilege,” said the Métis mother of four.
Her love of science drew her to medical school, and now she can’t wait to help people along their health and wellness journey. She said her family originally hid the fact that they were Métis and felt ashamed, but now it’s a source of pride.
“Being part of the Indigenous medical student network has been a great support in reconnecting, but it’s also a great opportunity to challenge some of the health gaps that exist between Indigenous and non-Indigenous populations,” Wachal said.
She said she plans to continue advocating for health equity and for people to access culturally safe care and to feel respected and treated with dignity within the health system. She is considering a career as a doctor working in mental health.
“I lost my cousin to mental illness in the spring. This one really touches me a lot,” Wachal said, adding that he had been an advocate and open for his own mental health.
“I would love to be a part of the journey of people dealing with mental illness and working with families and loved ones who are facing loss through suicide,” she said. “Mental wellness is universal.”
Fleury said she also looked forward to giving back by mentoring young Indigenous students on a similar path to the one she was following. She says she “fell in love” with the Indigenous student group at the University of Manitoba and is proud that so many of her peers are in the Class of 2025.
“I think it’s really exciting to see the health care system, and in particular the University of Manitoba, getting ready to make the changes they want to see,” she said.
Fleury said she hopes this will also lead to changes in healthcare facilities and more equal representation of the people they see and treat as doctors.
“We can do amazing things, like go to medical school and eventually become aboriginal doctors. I think it’s a really exciting start.
The 2025 class is made up of 61 women, 45 men and four who identify as non-binary.