Manitoba incentive programs aren’t about students

New programs for medical and law students are about getting professionals where they’re needed, not student aid

This summer, Dawson City, the second largest community in the Yukon, lost half its doctors when one of them decided to take a year-long sabbatical. The territorial government is currently building a hospital in the town, since the 1960s anyone who has to be held overnight for medical treatment has to be airlifted to Whitehorse, but many in the community question who’s actually going to work there.

Whitehorse, home to the territory’s only hospital, is facing a severe and growing doctor shortage and specialists only pass through a few times a year. Serious cases requiring emergency specialist care must be sent south, usually to Vancouver.

Throughout Northern Canada the story is the same: shortages of doctors and other professionals, like lawyers.

Certainly, there is a shortage of doctors throughout much of the country but not having a family doctor is one thing when there are hospitals and walk-in clinics nearby; it’s a whole different story when the nearest doctor–of any sort–is a several hundred kilometre flight away.

Manitoba recently introduced programs designed to encourage graduates of medicine and law to work in the province’s North, by giving them tuition refunds in exchange for work in isolated communities.

This isn’t about student aid, it’s about providing incentives to encourage grads to work in places that need their skills.

Some have criticized these programs on the basis that they put pressure on poorer students to work in the North, rather than pursue specialties. While I understand that some people have a sort of moral objection to student debt, if there are any graduates who can handle debt it’s medical specialists who will graduate to high salaries.

Medical students, just by the virtue of being medical students, have access to large loans and lines of credit. Banks are willing to lend because medical students are essentially guaranteed high salaries on graduation.

This new program doesn’t pressure students from poorer backgrounds into choosing the North over a specialty, it gives students a choice between paying off their debt by pursuing higher paying positions or working off their debt by practicing in areas where there is a great need.

If we want to talk about inequality, let’s talk about the fact that the far majority of medical students come from well-off backgrounds. At the Université de Montréal a full 45 per cent of medical students have backgrounds in the richest 20 per cent of the population, only five per cent come from poor backgrounds. The problem isn’t how medical students from poor backgrounds choose to pay off their debts, it’s about getting them in to medical school in the first place.

Or we can talk about the fact that Northern Canadians–a large percentage of whom are Aboriginal–are denied essential government services provided to southerners because few people want to provide them.

Let’s remember that medical education, while it may be expensive, is still funded by society, there’s nothing wrong with the state encouraging doctors to do the right thing and provide medical care to Canadians whose access to proper treatment is severely limited.

Other provinces with large northern regions would be wise to imitate these programs and the federal government should do the same for the territories.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.