Advancing Indigenous health through service, awareness and community

Dr. Michael Perley and Dr. Danièle Behn Smith are the recipients of the 2024 Dr. Thomas Dignan Indigenous Health Award. In support of the Royal College’s commitment to reconciliation and in acknowledgement of their exemplary work, the Royal College decided to bestow this award upon two recipients for 2024.

This year’s recipients of the Dr. Thomas Dignan Indigenous Health Award are raising awareness about Indigenous health care on opposite sides of the country – and in their own unique ways.

Michael Perley, ONB, MD, CCFP, FCFP, a leader and family doctor of Tobique First Nation in New Brunswick, has dedicated almost 40 years to serving Indigenous communities and advocating for the rights and interests of First Nations people. 

In British Columbia, Danièle Behn Smith, MD, CCFP, MPH, is a leader in upholding Indigenous rights and self-determination. Her work focuses on breaking down colonial systems within government and the health care system that are based on systemic white supremacy and anti-Indigenous racism.

Both physicians reflect the values and commitment of the late Thomas Dignan, CM, OOnt, MD, a Mohawk from Six Nations of the Grand River Territory and a tireless advocate for Indigenous health care. 

Advancing care, raising awareness

Dr. Perley was a colleague of Dr. Dignan, who passed away in 2021. 

Dr. Michael Perley

Dr. Michael Perley (submitted photo)

“We were part of the original First Nations physician group that formed the National Aboriginal Physicians of Canada Committee,” he says. “I really respected him because he's one of the first First Nation physicians in Canada.” 

Raised by his grandparents on Tobique First Nation, Dr. Perley was the first Indigenous graduate of Dalhousie University’s medical school. 

After graduation, he was quickly offered a job in the small town of Woodstock, an hour south of Tobique, and it wasn’t long before his home community asked for his help. 

“The Chief at the time had called me and said, ‘Mike, can you come and do a clinic?’”  

While his workload in Woodstock included the ER, being on call and inpatient care, he carved out time to offer services in Tobique.

“And I’ve been going there ever since,” he says. His initial visit led to the establishment of a full-service clinic, the Neqotkuk Wellness Centre, designed specifically to meet the needs of the First Nation. 

“The community required home care nursing, for example, and a lot of the kids were not well immunized, so that was something we were going to do. 

“We had to work on getting services from Health Canada at the time. It took a lot of work with the Chief and Council and other community members to convince Health Canada they should invest more money into a building and adding more services,” explains Dr. Perley. 

Today, the Neqotkuk Wellness Centre offers home care and home nursing care, as well as the services of a dietitian, psychologist, social workers, a dental office and nurse practitioner.

Dr. Perley would like to further expand the centre to include drug and alcohol programs, which are currently offered in a separate location. 

“I personally foresee having everything included in one building – a one-stop shop.”

Building on the success of the clinic in Tobique, he later established a similar clinic at Woodstock First Nation.  

Over his long career, Dr. Perley has also held several leadership roles, provincially and nationally. “Because that's where all the decisions are made,” he says. “I felt I was just putting a Band-Aid over everything when I first started, and it wasn't enough.”

Unlearning and undoing

Dr. Behn Smith, of Eh Cho Dene and Métis descent, brings a deep commitment to Indigenous health to her work with patients, government and the academic community. Among other notable achievements in advancing awareness and Indigenous health care, she co-created and led Unlearning and Undoing Systemic White Supremacy, a two-year program on unlearning and undoing white supremacy and anti-Indigenous racism in the work of B.C.’s Office of the Provincial Health Officer (OPHO), where she serves as deputy provincial health officer for Indigenous health. 

Dr. Behn Smith

Dr. Danièle Behn Smith (submitted photo)

“This has been the most energizing, refreshing and inspiring time in my career because it does feel like for the first time, we're actually centring the root problems, we’re gazing on them collectively together, and we're taking concrete actions to address them,” she says. 

Participant and deputy provincial health officer Deena Hinshaw, MD, FRCPC, says these discussions “showed us how each of us participates daily in structures and processes built on white supremacist and colonial foundations and how we can choose anti-racist approaches in all aspects of our lives. [She] approaches this work in a spirit of love and care for all participants and is able to regularly name painful truths about racism, colonialism and historical trauma without apology while also caring deeply for all partners in the conversation.”

Under Dr. Behn Smith’s leadership, the OPHO has evolved from having a single Indigenous team member to now having six. 

“This important change means that we have a strong voice for Indigenous knowledge and our office is seen broadly as a safe work environment for Indigenous people,” says provincial health officer Bonnie Henry, MD, FRCPC.

Dr. Behn Smith recognizes youth and Elders as the heart of her work. She was a leader in the unique We Walk Together project (2022-24), which brought together First Nations Peoples in B.C., including Knowledge Keepers and youth, to explore and understand the connection between having a close relationship with land, water and territory and having optimal health and wellness. 

Dr. Behn Smith says the driving force behind her career has stayed constant: “Ultimately I wanted to be a part of contributing to a health care system where my family could come and get their needs met in a good way and have a good experience.”