James Smith Cree Nation (JSCN) took a bold leap into Saskatchewan’s technology sector -- albeit with expert help – through its majority ownership in cutting-edge imaging firm National Medical Imaging Clinic, Education and Research Centre (NMICERC), which opened last year in Saskatoon. But JSCN and partner Dragan Racic, president of DR Links Holdings Inc., soon will be doing much more with the facility than scanning human bodies.
“We’re going to have the first MRI and CT technician program in Saskatchewan, right beside our facility in Market Mall,’’ says Dwayne Seib, director of operations for JSCN and CEO of Fort-à-la-Corne Ventures Ltd., its economic development arm. “Right now, the nearest MRI training schools are in Alberta and Manitoba.’’
Moreover, when NMICERC isn’t being used for clinical and educational purposes, it will accommodate researchers and educators who can take advantage of its MRI 3 Tesla, a state-of-the-art magnetic resonance imaging device featuring clearer, more detailed images than typical MRIs.
“People in a wide variety of disciplines need imaging,’’ says Seib. “We’ll open our doors to researchers and educators who can use our centre in off hours, like two in the morning.’’
In Saskatchewan, private-pay MRI clinics must provide a free and equally complex scan to someone on the public waiting list for every paid scan they undertake. The NMICERC is one of four private-pay MRI facilities in the province.
Seib acknowledges medical imaging isn’t a common undertaking for a First Nation development organization – casinos and gas stations are a lot more familiar to the bankers, he says. However, when he spotted a Facebook post that said the Government of Saskatchewan was considering licensing another private pay MRI facility to reduce wait times, he thought it might be an interesting opportunity for JSCN. “We don’t take everything, but we’ll look at anything.’’ A few months later, an acquaintance familiar with his interest in an imaging facility introduced him to Racic, an international business professional with experience in medical imaging. Racic and Fort-à-la-Corne signed a partnership agreement in 2017 and presented their case to the provincial government, which later granted them an operating license.
Since then, Racic has been busy forging partnerships with a variety of organizations ranging from Siemens Healthineers, a German company that builds and supports MRIs and associated research, to the research and education based American College of Radiology, which is certifying the facility, he says. JSCN and Siemens Healthineers will work with the University of Saskatchewan and Saskatchewan Polytechnic on research projects aimed at expanding the body of knowledge surrounding medical imaging.
The clinic’s MRI 3 Tesla device can also be used for cutting-edge treatments such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (FMRI), used in measuring blood flow in the brain, and diffusion tensor imaging (DTI), used to measure water diffusion between cells in the brain. FMRI and DTI can show abnormalities in the brain that cannot be detected with other imaging techniques.
Racic is particularly excited about the centre’s memorandum of understanding with Michener Institute of Education, a post-secondary facility in Toronto. That agreement will bring the equivalent of a satellite college for magnetic resonance imaging to Saskatoon.
“The Michener Institute, along with James Smith Cree Nation and NMICERC are already approved by the Government of Saskatchewan to provide these educational services,’’ says Racic. “We also have a memorandum of understanding with the Saskatchewan Health Authority, University of Saskatchewan and Saskatchewan Polytechnic to provide practical, clinical placement for students.’’
Michener’s presence in Saskatchewan together with the high-end equipment at the clinic will allow Saskatchewan’s practising radiology technologists to maintain their credentials here in the province. “They can come to our clinic for the continuing education courses they require to keep up their licenses and certifications,’’ says Racic.
Planning is underway for a quarterly, two-day seminar in Saskatoon that will highlight the company’s Indigenous partnership and provide educational opportunities. “We’ll use the first day to tell the world who we are, what we’re doing and why this is important to Indigenous people in Saskatchewan and Canada,’’ says Racic. “And we’ll use the second day to show everyone interested how to run an MRI and CT scan, and to learn the capabilities of both machines.’’
Seib says First Nation youth will benefit from the education and research centre, although they won’t be given priority for entrance to the school. “It’ll be just as tough to get accepted here as anywhere else,’’ he says, adding applicants will also require the same prerequisite courses as everyone else. But he says it’s important for Indigenous kids to see medical imaging as a career option. “You ask our kids what they want to be when they grow up and they say ‘nurse, firefighter, teacher – the things they see in life and on TV. Now we’re adding radiologist and MRI tech to their list.’’
There’s another benefit for First Nations youth. Sometimes the prospect of leaving their community can be a little intimidating, says Seib. “Now they can see that First Nations people own this MRI business. They’ll say ‘I know these people. They’ll understand me here.’’