Born in the Saint Vincent de Paul Society children’s shelter in Québec City, Stanley Vollant was adopted by his maternal grandparents when he was three days old. All of his grandfather Xavier’s ancestors were nomads; Xavier was the first in his family line to adopt a non-nomadic lifestyle, along with his wife, Marianna.
Stanley grew up among his grandparents, uncles and aunts in the community of Pessamit, an Aboriginal village in the North Shore region of Québec. He was raised in the Innu language (see Aboriginal Languages of Canada). His grandfather was a trapper and passed on his love of the outdoors and the forest to Stanley (see Aboriginal People: Education). For Stanley and his childhood friends, nature was one big playground.
Education was a core value for Xavier Vollant. He regarded Stanley as his own son and made sure that he understood the importance of a formal education. From Stanley’s very first day in school, he was immersed in French, a language that he neither spoke nor understood. When Stanley was still in kindergarten, his class received a visit from Max Gros-Louis, chief of the Huron-Wendat community of Wendake (then known as Huronia). The chief told the children how important it was to study hard and “come back to the community one day to help their fathers, mothers, brothers and sisters.” This encounter made a profound impression on young Stanley and proved a catalyst for his education. From then on, he too wanted to contribute to the well-being of his community when he grew up.
At first interested in a career as an archeologist, and then as engineer, Stanley attended secondary school at the Institut Saint-Louis de France in Loretteville (now part of Québec City). There he was often the target of racism, but his classmates’ taunts only drove him to excel and strengthened his resilience. A superb athlete, at age 15 he discovered the sport of running, in which he went on to win many medals. After completing secondary school, he enrolled at Cégep Limoilou (a college in Québec City), in a program that prepared students for engineering studies at École Polytechnique of Université de Montréal.
But in July 1983, an incident occurred that set Stanley on a completely different path. While he was back visiting his native village, a drunken man came up to him and congratulated him on his plans to study medicine. To avoid antagonizing the man, Stanley went along with him, but his words, like a prophecy, led Stanley to think again about his future. The next day, he decided to become a doctor, despite his fear of blood. Inspired by his grandmother’s gifts as a healer and the encouragement that he received from his community, he worked hard to earn excellent marks in school. He was accepted by the Faculty of Medicine of Université de Montréal, where he earned his medical degree in 1989 and completed his residency in general surgery in 1994.
First Aboriginal Surgeon in Québec
Dr. Vollant began his career as a general surgeon at the regional hospital centre of Baie-Comeau, Québec, where he quickly gained a reputation both for his surgical skills and for his surgical innovations, in particular his use of laparoscopy (a method in which a surgical telescope and other surgical instruments are introduced through small incisions in the abdominal wall).
Dr. Vollant spent two years lecturing at some 40 schools in Québec, Ontario and New Brunswick. He was appointed to the board of directors of the Québec Medical Association in 1998, served as its secretary and then its treasurer, became its president in 2001, and held that position until 2005. Dr. Vollant is the very first Aboriginal person to head a North American medical association. He is highly committed to protecting Québec physicians’ quality of life and to securing a larger number of places in faculties of medicine for his brothers and sisters from cultural minorities.
Dr. Vollant worked at the Health and Social Services Centre of Chicoutimi, Québec in 2003, then moved to Ottawa, where he practiced general surgery at Hôpital Montfort (Ontario’s only francophone teaching hospital) and served as director of the Aboriginal Program established in 2005 at the Faculty of Medicine of the University of Ottawa.
Everything seemed to be fine in his professional life, but in his personal life, the young surgeon was going through some extremely painful experiences. After two conjugal breakups, unable to see his children as often as he wanted, he sank into a depression that brought him to the verge of suicide. Despite his fragile mental health, he travelled to New Zealand on business and there reconnected with the energy of the Earth by running along the rim of a volcano. This experience made him decide to walk the fabled pilgrimage route of Santiago de Compostela in Spain.
The Innu Meshkenu Walk: “My Innu Path”
Thus it was that Stanley Vollant began his Spanish pilgrimage in April 2008. One night, as he slept on the outskirts of the city of Astoria after two eventful weeks on the road, he had a prophetic dream in which his grandfather Xavier asked him to undertake a walk to bring Aboriginal communities closer together.
Having found his own spiritual path, Dr. Vollant now wanted to give Aboriginal youth the hope for a fulfilling life, the desire to succeed in school, and, if possible, the chance to discover their true vocations. That is why, in 2010, he began his five-year, 6,000 km walk, Innu Meshkenu (My Innu Path), to honour the people of Canada and its 55 Aboriginal nations (including 11 in Québec) and to encourage rapprochement and mutual understanding among the Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal cultures of this vast country.
Throughout this ongoing journey, Dr. Vollant has stopped at schools to talk with Aboriginal youth and ask them about their dreams. He also meets with elders to stress the importance of their ancestral wisdom. This sharing between generations, especially regarding traditional medicine, helps to preserve and transmit the cultural heritage of Canada’s First Peoples.
The route of this walk is divided into stages, passing from Labrador through Québec and on into Ontario and following traditional trails as much as possible. Many people have been inspired to follow Dr. Vollant’s route along this “Aboriginal Compostela.” Braving the elements, the trekkers carry their own food and tents; in winter, they pull their own sleds — a symbolic nod to the courage and determination of their ancestors.
Once he has finished walking his first 6,000 km through Labrador, Québec and Ontario, Dr. Vollant plans to keep walking and visit other Aboriginal communities in Canada. In keeping with his strong sense of social commitment, he also devotes time to health careers camps and mini medical schools. Since 2010, he has co-ordinated the First Nations Program of the Faculty of Medicine at Université de Montréal. In 2016, the documentary Stanley Vollant - De Compostelle à Kuujjuaq was enthusiastically received by the public and won the Prix Télébec for best short or medium-length film at the Festival du cinéma international en Abitibi-Témiscamingue (FCIAT).
Honours and Awards
National Aboriginal Role Model Award, Governor General of Canada (1996)
Personality of the Week, La Presse (2001)
Personality of the Year (Courage, Humanitarianism and Personal Achievement Category),
La Presse (2001)
National Aboriginal Achievement Award (2004)
Prix Médecin de cœur et d’action (Medicine with Heart in Action Award) Association des médecins de langue française du Canada and L’actualité médicale (2004)
One of “40 Physicians Who Have Made History,” L’actualité médicale (2010)
Québec and Labrador First Nations and Inuit Suicide Prevention Association Award (2010)
Medicine, Culture and Society Award, Faculty of Medicine, Université de Montréal (2012)
Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal (2012)
Prestige Award, Québec Medical Association (2013)
Knight of the National Order of Québec (Ordre national du Québec) (2014)
Hommage bénévolat-Québec Award (2016)
Medal for Exceptional Merit, Lieutenant-Governor of Québec (2017)