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Pioneering indigenous physician Thomas Dignan.Courtesy of the Family

When Thomas Dignan was in Grade 8, his teacher told his parents he would not amount to much and recommended he attend a trade school. Growing up on Hamilton’s working-class, rough-and-tumble east side, Dr. Dignan, a Mohawk with roots in Six Nations of the Grand River territory, spent the rest of his life proving that teacher wrong.

He was not an indifferent student, not a bit. Rather, he had dyslexia and once the problem was diagnosed, his ambition, energy and interests eventually led him to become a nurse, then a nursing instructor, then the first Indigenous person to graduate from McMaster University’s medical school, then a licensed pilot who pursued his practice by flying his own plane to remote communities in northern Ontario.

“In a roundabout way, his dream was always to become a physician and with each step, he gained confidence in his intellect and ability to succeed,” his daughter, Heather Dignan, said.

Dr. Dignan died at home in Hamilton on Jan. 17 of indeterminate causes after suffering a number of health issues over the past few years. He was 78.

Short, plainspoken and unafraid to loudly express himself, he was at once a teacher, activist and lifelong learner, a man who believed in changing the system from within and brooked no condescension from those on the outside, no matter if they were bureaucrats, politicians or anyone else. Highfalutin babble drove him mad, as did being lectured at. He preferred the give and take of a conversation, in which the positions of all parties were really heard.

“Tom knew it wouldn’t help to just beat the system up for its brokenness. Instead, he wanted to expand it,” said Dr. Karen Hill, a Mohawk doctor from Six Nations for whom Dr. Dignan was a mentor. “That’s what Tom did. He showed me not to be afraid to speak when I saw something that needed to be said and to stand up for who I am in the system – an Indigenous person, a woman and a qualified physician.”

This is what Dr. Dignan wanted: to nurture First Nations physicians who instinctively knew how to meld science with culture and tradition, and cared for their patients in a way that enabled their families to understand clearly what was happening.

He knew that health care for Indigenous people required more than the federal government building nursing stations in communities and then letting them largely function on their own.

“Tom’s whole thing, his whole interest was to equalize the playing field for Indigenous people,” Dr. Hill said. “In a way, his battle wasn’t that different from that of women when they were fighting to enter the medical profession. The care they received from male physicians was so often dismissive, or inappropriate or sexualized. To change that situation, they went and trained as doctors themselves.”

Ms. Dignan remembers her father being a student for much of her time growing up, always working to improve himself so he could improve the lot of others.

“He was a champion for Indigenous peoples across our country, for bettering their situation when it comes to health care, giving them access to clean water,” she said. “He wanted our people, no matter where they came from, to embrace that and be proud.”

Thomas Dignan was born in Hamilton on March 12, 1942, the second of Harry and Sadie (née Hill) Dignan’s four children and their only son. His father, who had emigrated from Scotland, was a chauffeur. His mother, of Six Nations, was a homemaker.

Once, when he was a little boy and feeling poorly, his mother took him to see the doctor on the nearby reserve. Right then and there, he was taken with the idea that he, too, would become a doctor when he grew up, just like the one who had treated him.

When his father died suddenly from an allergic reaction to a sulfa drug after undergoing surgery, he set aside that dream, quitting school to help support his mother and sisters. He was 16 years old.

For the first two years, he worked at the Hamilton Spectator newspaper as a copy and errand boy. Then, he enlisted with several friends in the U.S. Marine Corps, a two-year stint during which he got his high school equivalency certificate. Upon his return to Canada in the early 1960s, he took computer courses at McMaster, eventually getting a job in data processing.

In 1965, he married his high school sweetheart, Cheryl Mulrooney, whom he met at a dance organized by a Catholic organization. As she trained to be a teacher, he took the first step toward fulfilling his childhood dream by enrolling in St. Joseph’s School of Nursing; he graduated in 1972 third in his class.

He worked briefly in the adolescent unit at Hamilton Psychiatric Hospital then the family, which by then included a toddler Heather, decamped for Berens River, a remote Manitoba community on the eastern shores of Lake Winnipeg. There, he ran the nursing station for just less than a year before they all moved again, this time to Edmonton so he could do a BSc in nursing at the University of Alberta.

Upon his graduation in 1977, the family returned to Hamilton. There, he taught nursing at Mohawk College for two years before taking the next step to realize his dream: He enrolled in medical school at McMaster. It was tough, a time financed by student loans and the work of his wife, but he persevered. In 1981, at the age of 39, Dr. Dignan graduated with his MD; because he knew he would be working in places without full-time emergency medicine specialists or anesthesiologists, he then completed what amounted to a year-long special residency in both.

With his family in tow (including an adopted son, Raymond Joseph), he would work in Thunder Bay – where the First Nations population has suffered from systemic racism for years – and in Bracebridge, on the Muskoka River.

Along the way, he also served as a medical officer of the First Nations and Inuit Health Branch of Health Canada, was the first president of the Native Nurses’ Association of Canada and was a founding member of what is now known as the Indigenous Physicians Association of Canada. He was also the recipient of a slew of honours, including the Order of Ontario in 2005, the Queen’s Golden and Diamond Jubilee medals in 2002 and 2012, and the Indspire Award in 2005 (for his work improving the health of First Nations peoples). In 2019, he was named a member of the Order of Canada.

In 2014, the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada honoured Dr. Dignan’s contributions to Indigenous health care by naming an award after him. The next year, Dr. Hill, whom he had mentored, was its first recipient.

Also a powerful role model to his children, he insisted on passing on traditions to them. He camped with them and fished. He taught them to love the great outdoors and treat it with respect. And he taught them that dreams could be turned into reality as long as they worked hard, believed in themselves and spoke out to be heard.

“My father’s legacy is something that will take time to realize,” Ms. Dignan said. “With his family, with his mentorship of up-and-coming physicians, his championing of Indigenous health care, his work ethic, all the things he accomplished in just 30 years since he became a doctor, his spirit will be felt for generations to come.”

Along with his wife and two children, Dr. Dignan leaves his sisters, Anita Laing and Helen Mielko; and his granddaughters, Lauren Archer and Naya Dignan.

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