SkyMed takes the medical drama to northern Canada

On the surface, Julie Puckrin’s new hour-long series focuses on themes familiar to TV audiences: a group of good-looking doctors, nurses and paramedics; high-stakes medical emergencies; and a healthy dose of sexual tension. 

The difference between Grey’s Anatomy, House, ER and this show? All the time its characters spend above 20,000 feet — and the places they touch down.

“I think it is a uniquely Canadian experience,” explained Puckrin, SkyMed’s showrunner, “and I think it is also a part of our country that a lot of Canadians don’t really know that much about.”

The series, which premiered on CBC TV and CBC Gem on July 10, looks at first responders living and working in Manitoba’s north — an area with limited road access that often requires paramedics to fly patients into and out of remote communities, both on the show and in reality. 

Medical dramas are well represented on television. A few, such as Transplant and Nurses, to name two of the most recent, are even set in Canada. And while Puckrin worked on both of those shows, she said the lack of content focusing on life in remote Canadian communities inspired her to make a medical drama of her own. 

WATCH| Trailer for northern Canada medical drama SkyMed: 

Life, death, and drama at 20,000 feet. SkyMed is a one-hour drama about the intense personal lives of the young nurses and pilots flying air ambulances in remote Northern Canada.

Because, without an accurate depiction of life in these communities, she said, few Canadians will understand the difficulties residents of those communities face — and Indigenous residents in particular. 

“[Canada’s North] always felt like a place that would be exciting to explore and a place that’s just perfect to have adventures in,” she said. “And a place that we haven’t seen much on Canadian television.”

While Puckrin based the show in part around how her sister and brother-in-law met as a nurse and pilot, she said SkyMed is particularly focused on the lack of medical care available to northern communities.

For that reason, Puckrin said,it was important to have Indigenous writers — including Roxann Whitebean, Amber-Sekowan Daniels and Meegwun Fairbrother — work behind the scenes to get those stories right. 

“What was important to all of us was to have strong Indigenous characters doing heroic jobs and doing exciting things and having adventures, and for this to really be a celebration of life in the North.”

Northern exposure

SkyMed isn’t the only production to showcase the realities of living in Northern Canada. Nyla Innuksuk’s 2022 horror film Slash/Back was filmed entirely on Baffin Island in the Nunavut hamlet of Pangnirtung, roughly 300 km from Iqaluit. Pangnirtung has no roads leading in or out, which required the entire cast and crew to live in a high school gymnasium for the entire filming process to avoid exacerbating the territory’s ongoing housing crisis.

Slash/Back was the first feature-length film ever shot in the village, and Innuksuk said that, alongside bringing attention to Nunavut as a filming location, she wanted to bring light to the issues those in the community face.

WATCH | Sci-fi thriller Slash/Back unlocks new generation fo Indigenous acting talent: 

Sci-fi thriller Slash/Back unlocks new generation of Indigenous acting talent

Slash/Back is one of a new wave of Indigenous-led projects on the big and small screen creating new opportunities for young creators and performers.

Cassandra Wajuntah, an assistant professor at the First Nations University of Canada in Regina, and director of the Indigenous Peoples Health Research Centre, said shows like SkyMed can raise awareness around health and health care in northern communities in similar ways.

That awareness mostly comes from highlighting social determinants of health — endemic issues that cause increased medical rate of events — like access to clean drinking water, safe housing and affordable food. 

Wajuntah, who was born in Thompson, Manitoba, and grew up in northern Saskatchewan, said those are the biggest issues many northern residents want dealt with. 

“Northern communities have a unique set of challenges,” she said. “Canadians complain about our health care system — wait times accessing, going to the E.R., that kind of thing — but for northern Indigenous communities in particular, those challenges are exacerbated times ten.”

Burnout common

Sarah Goulet, a family doctor in Manitoba’s Garden Hill First Nation, noted another problem in such communities. Garden Hill, like many of the locations featured in the show, is remote — 500 kilometres north of Winnipeg, and inaccessible by road.

With staff shortages common and the community chronically under-resourced, it can be difficult for medical workers to keep going. 

“What I hear from our physicians all the time is that just feeling like you’re helpless in the system is probably the number one thing that leads to burnout,” she said.

In Garden Hill, Goulet said, that helpless feeling manifests in multiple ways — not having a pharmacy, for example, means that even urgent medication orders can take days to arrive, as they have to be faxed, confirmed and shipped from Winnipeg while patients wait. 

Goulet and Wajuntah each said that another, more systemic issue is dealing with stereotyping from the medical community at large, which can frustrate attempts to get effective care for patients at multiple levels. In the face of those issues, more cultural competency training is needed for health-care workers

Both argued that more training is also needed for the people from those communities, so they can be involved in health care themselves. 

“I see that every day, how impactful it is to have members of the communities here, whether they’re community health representatives, whether they work in home care, whether they’re working as nurses and mental health workers,” said Goulet, who is herself Métis. “The impact that they have compared to those of us who travel here is tremendous.”

SkyMed deals with some of those issues, something that Goulet praised it for. But there are still very few shows like it, which Wajuntah said needs to change in order to improve public perception. 

“It’s one thing to do news articles and documentaries, but there are so many ways — including the artistic expression of scripted television — to get across these messages and these experiences of Indigenous people in these communities,” Wajuntah said. “I think the show can really open a door to those discussions for the community.”

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By Jon Doe