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Black History Month: First Black dentistry graduate, Arlington Franklin Dungy, became a champion of diversity

Arlington Franklin Dungy, seated at the bottom right, with students in the Aboriginal program at the University of Ottawa in 2006 (photo courtesy of University of Ottawa)

Arlington Franklin Dungy was Ontario’s first Black dental school graduate. He made a name for himself as a healer, but Dungy later built a career around helping many more students from diverse communities to follow in his footsteps.

Originally from Windsor, Dungy earned his doctor of dental surgery (DDS) from the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Dentistry in 1956. Just over 10 years later, in 1969, he was named chief of pediatric dentistry at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children.  

In 1981, Dungy was recruited as chief dentist for Ottawa’s Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario.

He became an adjunct professor of surgery at the University of Ottawa’s Faculty of Medicine, where Dungy also helped found a student affairs office. He was later named associate dean, alumni and student affairs. There, he used his experience to motivate changes to education policies that would ripple down through generations.  

“I can remember, in my youth, that prejudice was an active horse in the community…and that is an experience that shapes your being forever,” Dungy was quoted in a 2006 Indigenous Works newsletter.

Yearbook photo from 1956

He drew on this experience as he founded an initiative to encourage Indigenous applicants to the medical school. He became the first director of the Indigenous Admissions program for the University of Ottawa's Faculty of Medicine in 2006.

The program calls for eight spots to be held for qualified Indigenous applicants each year, helping to boost the numbers of Indigenous physicians in Canada.  

“Currently, there are no more than 200 self-declared Aboriginal doctors in Canada,” Dungy said at the time. “There should be about 1,500–2,000 to be representative of the population.”

Over a decade later, those numbers are still staggeringly low. According to the 2016 Census, fewer than one per cent of physicians and specialists in Canada identify as “Aboriginal.” Meanwhile, Indigenous people make up more than 4.5 per cent of the population.

Dungy looked forward to a time when other schools would  challenge themselves to become more inclusive of Indigenous applicants.

“If all took the same approach, we could make a huge dent in the disparity of [Indigenous] representation,” he said.  

 “Arlie,” as he was known to friends and colleagues, died in 2016.

With a file from Indigenous Works