Métis neurologist advises undecided to explore
- Betty Ann Adam | October 27, 2021
Saskatchewan’s first Indigenous neurologist, Dr. Landon Perlett, followed a winding education path to his career.
Born east of Regina at Indian Head, Perlett grew up in rural Saskatchewan.
His father, Arthur Perlett, is a farmer and carpenter who home schooled Perlett and his two siblings. Their mother, Marilyn Poitras, is a lawyer, whose education and career also took the family to Boston, Iqaluit, Victoria and points in between.
Wherever they lived, the family always kept a home in Saskatchewan and joined Poitras’ extended Cree and Métis family at her father’s home in the Qu’Applle area.
Perlett finished high school in Lumsden and headed to the University of Regina, where his original plan was to become a teacher and a writer. But the class that most intrigued him was archeology. So after the first year, he transferred to the University of Saskatchewan, which had an archeology program, and completed a Bachelor of Science degree.
“I was always interested in the science of it, especially looking at cadaveric remains, human remains,” he said.
In his last year of the program, a professor suggested Perlett take a class in gross human anatomy, which allowed him to examine bodies that had been donated to science. It opened a whole new area of investigation for him.
“There was so much more to look at than just bones, which I’d been focusing on,” he said.
Perlett’s new fascination with the human body led him, for the first time, to considered studying medicine.
“Most people that wanted to take medicine had had that in their head since high school, but I never had really thought about it.”
The prospect of moving from the study of the long dead to the living was “daunting but exciting,” so with the encouragement of professors, he spent a year taking the required physics and biochemistry classes, and applied to medical school.
“I was excited to work with living people with present problems, but I knew it was going to be a huge change from the career path I had selected, where there’s more urgency, where people’s health and lives can be at risk sometimes.”
In his second year he worked with neurologists and became enthralled by the brain and human behaviour.
“There was so much exotic mystery about how does the brain work that we’re still learning about today.”
“I really just like the puzzle of people’s problems when they come to you and they’re having various symptoms and how is this all tied together.”
After graduating with a medical degree in 2005, Perlett was accepted into the five-year neurology residency program in Saskatoon.
This January, he passed the neurology board exams and was told he was the first Indigenous person to do so at the University of Saskatchewan.
Like many Métis people, Perlett’s fair skin and hair reflect his mixes ancestry, but his Indigenous roots aren’t buried deep in the past. He was close to his grandfather George Poitras, who took him hunting on the land, told him stories and taught him to make bannock.
At Thanksgiving and Christmas, “my aunts and uncles would be cooking together making rubaboo or bullet soup.”
“Growing up in that background with mixed ancestry, mixed culture I thought was a pretty amazing experience to hear different languages growing up and hear different cultural beliefs, myths and stories from the Métis, French and Cree sides of my family.
“I felt that was a pretty special way to grow up…to feel a part of so many different cultures even though my looks don’t fit what most people would think of if you said I’m a Metis person.”
Perlett has had to defend Indigenous people when he was among non-Indigenous people.
“Racism is sort of everywhere… I definitely had to chime in and correct people for mistaken beliefs or ideas or straight up racist remarks,” he said.
As a doctor in the health care system, he has advocated for greater understanding about different cultures, such as when a huge extended family arrives to be with a gravely ill loved one and to support each other, despite hospital limits on visitors.
“We shouldn’t just blanket-statement make rules, because different cultures have different expectations around health and caring for their loved ones,” he said.
“For people who are undecided I would say just go and try to find classes that are fun for you. Find teachers you can bond with and learn from. Find other students that have similar interests to you and this process sort of evolves and changes, you’ll find your path just as long as you’re making learning fun to do every day.”
Perlett is currently in Calgary doing a two-year fellowship in dementia.