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First Nations Business Award of Excellence: Manitoulin Physio Centre

“The Island has been a great community to us, it’s been very accepting and welcoming community from a professional standpoint, and M’Chigeeng as well has embraced one of its own with open arms.”

When Derek Debassige became a physiotherapist, a high-demand profession that could have taken him anywhere in Canada, he knew exactly where he needed to go: back home to the M’Chigeeng First Nation.

He’s since opened the only private clinic on Manitoulin Island, growing it by leaps and bounds as he tries to stay true to the First Nations’ medicine wheel and its approach to a balanced life. Indeed, Debassige strives daily to maintain his focus between his service to the community, the donation of his time to local causes, and his enjoyment of the natural splendor of the North.

“It was really a lifestyle decision and getting back to working in a very diverse environment,” said Debassige, whose practice primarily handles private outpatient orthopedics.

“Working in Northern Ontario really allows you to spread your wings and be a specialist at being a generalist, is the way I look at it. You never know what’s going to walk through the door at any given point in the day, working in rehab in a rural setting.”

Debassige now handles referrals from physicians and institutions across the Island, with new clients setting foot in his lobby every day. The remaining half of his professional hours are spent catering to six local First Nations reserves, offering home and community care through regional organizations.

His professional path first began in Hamilton’s McMaster University, where he obtained degrees in kinesiology and physiotherapy between 1994 and 2000.

With degree in hand, he moved back to his home community after being recruited by the North Shore Tribal Council to help develop a new long-term care program for outpatient and home care needs. There, he travelled daily to service five reserves from Manitoulin Island to Sault Ste. Marie.

After obtaining experience and a post-graduate degree in manipulative therapy from Australia’s Curtin University, he branched out and created the Manitoulin Physio Centre in 2007.

He still works closely with the North Shore Tribal Council, assisting several days a week with such matters as obesity management, outpatient orthopedics and the needs of disabled children.

At the outset, Debassige was hesitant about how First Nations would respond to alternative medical care solutions, and acupuncture in particular. However, he was surprised to discover that the overwhelming majority of his earliest adopters were First Nations elders.

“I think they grasped onto it because it had a traditional element and a lifespan prior to Western medicine,” said Debassige. “I wasn’t sure how it was going to fly, but it’s been great.”

His business has since grown dramatically, with the size of the facility doubling earlier this year to include offices and a gym.

He’s also in the process of absorbing Dynamic Health and Fitness, the business belonging to his wife Joanna, whose private personal training and fitness classes are well-suited to his own business goals.

Meanwhile, with what little time he can spare, he helps local sports teams with coaching and sponsorships, believing firmly in the importance of an active lifestyle.

His expertise has also attracted the interest of the Northern Ontario School of Medicine, where he serves on the board of directors. He also served as chair of the National Aboriginal Health Organization in Ottawa before time constraints forced him to choose between his community and his regular trips to the nation’s capital. Even from afar, he continues to advocate for First Nations health issues to be supported by policies, procedures and political will.

These efforts haven’t gone unnoticed.

On top of this year’s First Nations Business award from Northern Ontario Business, the Waubetek Business Development Corporation named him the 2009 Youth Entrepreneur of the Year. The Union of Ontario Indians similarly marked his contributions in 2008 with a health recognition award.

To continue bolstering his success, Debassige is on the hunt for two physiotherapists to complement his staff of two kinesiologists and two massage therapists.

This search represents his single biggest challenge: trying to find skilled people who, like him, are from the North and have an interest in returning. While the human resources issue is the only thing limiting his business’ growth, it is a “good problem to have,” reflecting the community’s seemingly boundless interest in his services.

“The Island has been a great community to us, it’s been very accepting and welcoming community from a professional standpoint, and M’Chigeeng as well has embraced one of its own with open arms.”