Thunder Bay

Thunder Bay, Ont., doctor 'surprised and proud' being appointed to Order of Canada

A Thunder Bay, Ont., doctor says he was "surprised and proud" to learn that he was appointed to the Order of Canada earlier this week, but says he's unsure "what he's done to deserve such an honour."

Dr. Thomas Dignan is among 103 new members to receive the honour

Dr. Thomas Dignan has been appointed to the Order of Canada for his dedication to the health and well-being of Indigenous communities as a primary care physician. (Indigenous Students Health Sciences Office)

A Thunder Bay, Ont., doctor says he was "surprised and proud" to learn that he was appointed to the Order of Canada earlier this week, but says he's unsure "what he's done to deserve such an honour."

Dr. Thomas Dignan is among 103 new members to receive the honour on Dec. 27 after over an over-30 year span of accomplishments, including helping to establish the organization now known as the Indigenous Physicians Association of Canada.

"I graduated from medical school in 1981 as the first Indigenous student and at that particular time, the oldest student they had accepted," Dignan told CBC News. "I was 35 when I started."

He said McMaster University was the only school at the time that accepted students who didn't have a science degree and were over the age of 30.

"For example, I believe the CEO of the Royal College, Dr. Andrew Padmos, has a degree in political science and was one of the people that encouraged me to go and apply to McMaster to go to medical school," Dignan explained.

He said he was inspired to become a doctor at the young age of five or six after his mother took him to see an Indigenous doctor for a small mark on his face.

"He was just absolutely so gentle, so polite ... [and] he treated me like someone who knew what was going on and since that time decided I wanted to be a doctor," Dignan said.

I'm not sure if I made a difference-Dr. Thomas Dignan

He first came to Thunder Bay as the city's "first emergency-educated physician" as he had completed an extra year during his internship to focus on emergency medicine.

"In those days, they had a mixed internship so I did three years of family medicine, I did a year of emergency medicine and trauma surgery with the trauma team and a year in anesthesia," Dignan said.

This all prepared him to become a physician in remote Indigenous communities in northern Ontario where he became a licensed pilot who flew in to isolated First Nations.

"I'm not sure if I made a difference," Dignan said, adding that "we started a Native physicians association back in 1989 and it's evolved into the Indigenous Physicians Association of Canada.

"That particular time I believe there was only about 10 Indigenous physicians in Canada ... now we have over 200."

Dignan said he hopes to see more medical programs, focused on Indigenous culture, get developed and supported by "the people of Canada and backed by the government."

According to the Governor General's website, Dignan is being recognized for his dedication to the health and well-being of Indigenous communities as a primary care physician.