Filling a need Dentist racks up the miles to help protect northern smiles


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Wally Mah’s commute on Monday mornings begins at 7 a.m.

He takes a taxi from his downtown condo to the Winnipeg airport, where he boards a small plane bound for the northern First Nation community of Pukatawagan.

It’s a near weekly journey Mah, 46, has been doing for 14 years.

Pukatawagan, about 820 kilometres northwest of Winnipeg, is home to approximately 2,000 residents. Mah is their only dentist.

He works three weeks out of every month up north, a schedule that keeps him busy when he’s in town.

During the week, he stays at the nursing station in his modest-sized room with a mini fridge and a bed.

The dentist office is just down the hall.

On Friday afternoons, after his last patient has left and he has finished sanitizing his dental instruments, Mah hops onto a seven-seat plane that takes him to The Pas, about 200 kilometres to the south, before catching a connecting flight to Winnipeg. He gets back to his home in the Exchange District around 11 p.m.

Born to Chinese-Canadian parents from Hong Kong, Mah is originally from 100 Mile House, a small town in British Columbia, about two hours north of Kamloops.

After graduating from the University of British Columbia and completing dental school, he became interested in First Nations issues after watching stories about Nunavut. That interest led him to take a contract as a dentist, which resulted in travelling to communities in northern Saskatchewan and Manitoba — two provinces he had never been to previously.

Mah wanted to get a better understanding of life on First Nations and a better understanding of Canada. He had travelled internationally, but not as much in his own country. Mostly though, he wanted to help people.

He has since worked as a dentist in Fond du Lac, Sask., and Little Grand Rapids, Garden Hill and Cross Lake in Manitoba, to name a few of the northern communities where he has practised.

There are many dentists in Winnipeg, he says, but up north in Pukatawagan, he is the only one and the community depends on him to take care of their teeth.

Free Press photojournalist Jessica Lee spent a week in Pukatawagan documenting Mah at work and in his adopted community.

Jessica Lee

Jessica Lee

After freelancing from abroad and in Toronto for most of her career, Jessica Lee moved to Winnipeg from Toronto in 2021 to join the Free Press.


Updated on Sunday, November 20, 2022 10:55 AM CST: Updates cutlines, removes one picture

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