Honouring leaders in Indigenous health care and education

A woman holding a glass award while speaking into a microphone at a podium. There are three other women looking on as she speaks.

(From left to right) Jennifer McKinnell, the director of McMaster’s Health Sciences Library, Alexandra Trottier, the executive director of the Indigenous Health Learning Lodge, health care leader Pat Mandy, and Heather Dignan, the daughter of the late Thomas Dignan.

Standing at a podium in front of a crowd, Heather Dignan recounted how during a school interview a teacher told her grandparents that her father, Thomas Dignan, wouldn’t amount to much.  

“Well, I can proudly stand here today and say he proved everybody wrong,” said Dignan tearfully. 

Thomas Dignan would go on to be the first Indigenous graduate of McMaster University’s medical school and the first president of the Canadian Indigenous Nurses Association. He was also inducted into the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame in 2022. A sketch dedicated to Dignan, who passed away in 2021, can be seen on the second floor of the Health Sciences Centre outside of the School of Nursing. 

Heather Dignan shared the story as part of a speech delivered at an event held on McMaster’s campus ahead of National Day for Truth and Reconciliation.  

Heather Dignan speaking at a podium
Heather Dignan

The event, hosted by the Indigenous Health Learning Lodge and the Faculty of Health Sciences, was to honour the late Dignan as well as Pat Mandy, an award-winning health care leader, for their tremendous impact on Indigenous health care and education. 

Mandy, who was awarded an Honorary Doctorate earlier this year by McMaster’s School of Nursing, has spent her career shining a light on the persistent need for truth and reconciliation initiatives.  

Speaking to the crowd, Mandy gave a history of how she first became affiliated with the Faculty of Health Sciences in 1991 when she received a letter acknowledging her interest in increasing Indigenous applicants to the health sciences programs.  

Mandy acknowledged the many committees and initiatives that she has participated in, and led in some cases, throughout her career.  

“It’s not about me, it’s about what I can stand for,” said Mandy.  

Other speakers including McMaster community leaders paid tribute to Dignan and Mandy, as well as shared what truth and reconciliation means to them.  

The September 25th event also featured a moment of silence for all the lives lost to residential schools across the country.  

Pat Mandy speaking at a podium
Pat Mandy

A powerful slideshow featuring all the names in the National Student Memorial Register was presented. It is a list of those who are known to have died in each province and in each school, however, there are many more whose names are not recorded.  

The event concluded with a presentation of awards to the honoured guests as a tribute to the work they have done towards meaningful reconciliation. 

Through both of their speeches, Dignan and Mandy shared their hopes for the future. 

Mandy acknowledged her beginnings, living in downtown Hamilton on Bay Street, at the time hoping to gain more experiences and education, and then reflected on how far she has come.  

“I hope that some other young folks think ‘I can do it.’” 

Dignan, sharing how her father’s intelligence and honesty helped him succeed, highlighted how his work has laid a foundation for others to follow in his footsteps.  

“His legacy lives on in the growing ranks of Indigenous physicians and nurses now working throughout Canada,” she said.  

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