Wei Wai Kum First Nation member Ethel Henry has owned and operated Care Dental Hygiene in Campbell River since 2013. In 2021 she expanded her practice with support from NEDC.
It’s unclear how many of the 31,000 dental hygienists in Canada are Indigenous. The figures are not readily available. But becoming a dental hygienist was not what most Indigenous youth on Vancouver Island were thinking about when Ethel Henry made it her goal as a teenager.
She credits her mother (from Alert Bay, the ‘Na̱mg̱is First Nation) and father for always encouraging Ethel and her siblings to pursue post-secondary education. Initially considering social work, Ethel realized after a one week work experience in high school that dental hygiene was the career for her.
“I like seeing people smile,” she shares. “I like seeing people happy and healthy.”
More than three decades later the Kwakwaka’wakw entrepreneur has her own building, lock and keys thanks to support from NEDC. She has her own policies. Her own staff. She was also able to purchase new dental chairs and a portable x-ray machine, hire new staff, bring on a dentist part-time and is looking to hire a second hygienist soon.
“The rewards of having my own practice are being able to provide the care I would like to provide for people, treating them how I want to be treated,” Ethel says.
Oral health surveys have found that First Nations people had nearly twice as much dental disease compared with other Canadians. These oral health challenges are linked to fewer regular dental visits, less access to affordable and nutritious food and geographic barriers. More than 25 percent of Indigenous people in Canada only see a dentist for emergencies.
It is for these reasons that Ethel has been a passionate advocate for improving preventive oral health services for Indigenous peoples at the provincial level while focusing her practice on providing accessible and culturally-safe dental hygiene services at the community level – all in between running a business and raising a family.
She explains, “It is not just teeth. It is overall health. We’re getting people to healthier oral health. That means their overall body health is improved. We’re reducing the bacteria going through the body. If you have an infection in the gums, you have an infection going on throughout the body. If your gums are bleeding, you have an infection.”
The Indigenous Dental Association of Canada was established in 2022 to bring together the Indigenous dental community to support its vision of reconciliation in dentistry. Indigenous dental professionals enjoy a community through which they can share resources, knowledge, and experiences while supporting approaches to dentistry rooted in traditional ways of knowing.
The IDAC is one example of Canada’s dental industry making efforts to improve oral health outcomes for Indigenous peoples in the spirit of reconciliation, something that Ethel has been working towards for nearly 30 years. One particular story stands out to Ethel as she reflects on her holistic approach to dental hygiene and customer care.
“I had a client with very high diabetes come in for hygiene. We talked about what options he had. No one had ever asked him, ‘What would you like to do?’ And that person looked at me and said, ‘I want to keep my teeth.’ Because he was told before that he should just have them all pulled out. So he kinda gave up.”
“And looking at the difference after a year of working with him, his diabetes was completely controlled. He was healthier, happier and still had his own teeth in his mouth when he smiled.”
Ethel encourages anyone with an idea for a business to pursue their dreams. For Indigenous entrepreneurs on Vancouver Island, she gives a glowing review of her experience being supported by NEDC business development officers and accessing NEDC programs.
“If you can read, you can do anything. That’s pretty amazing, and that’s what got me through the NEDC website,” Ethel shares. “We have so many opportunities in this day and age. If you can go get the education for it then nothing will hold you back.”
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