Inequitable health outcomes for Indigenous peoples is the measure of racism in the system

Hill Times February 8, 2021

Institutional racism is strong in many sectors, but it’s life threatening health care in Canada. Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond and Harmony Johnson recently led a team to review complaints of racism in health care in British Columbia, and the resulting report, released on Nov. 30, 2020, should be mandatory reading for Canadians, In Plain Sight, Addressing Indigenous-specific Racism and Discrimination in B.C. Health Care. More than 9,000 submissions were recorded and the stark picture of daily and regular racism has been documented.

“Only 28 per cent of Indigenous respondents reported that they are ‘always’ treated with courtesy and respect when accessing health care, and 24 per cent that health-care workers ‘always’ act as though they are dishonest. ‘Cold’ or ‘harsh’ treatment of Indigenous patients by health-care workers was reported in 10 per cent of submissions to the Review, describing interactions lacking in compassion, caring or humanity.”

“Over one-third of all non-Indigenous [health-care workers] reported that they had personally witnessed interpersonal racism or discrimination directed to Indigenous patients, and almost half of non-Indigenous [health-care workers] acknowledged its existence in their organizations. … Approximately 13 per cent of non-racialized health-care workers made at least one racially antagonistic comment in the survey.”

Obviously racism reduces the quality of health care provided, or leads to the denial of health care, a denial of care in the face of need. The inequitable health outcomes for Indigenous peoples is a measure of the racism in the system itself, a measure of the system’s refusal to change.

Two weeks ago, Dr. John Harding, British Columbia’s medical officer for the North Shore, Sea to Sky, Sunshine Coast, Powell River, Bella Bella and Bella Coola, was supposed to administer COVID-19 vaccines in Nuxalk Nation in British Columbia, but instead got his feelings hurt in some miscommunication with local health leaders, and so he left with more than two-thirds of the vaccine in his possession after calling the vaccine “a gift” to the local First Nation. He left under a police escort. What a power trip for the public health officer who is supposed to “first, do no harm.” But don’t let the police off the hook here, they have some explaining to do as well.

Is racism in health care a British Columbia problem? No, and it’s probably worse in other parts of the country. One wonders why the media don’t cover it in other parts of the country.

What is truly horrifying is that probably half of all health-care workers have seen something racist, and yet the racism continues. Health workers who saw an Indigenous patient receive less care than others, or witnessed one be called an alcoholic and disrespected, or saw an Indigenous patient being discriminated against on the racist belief they are non-compliers or less capable, or saw an Indigenous patient yelled at with racist slurs. These are the most pervasive forms of racism in health, according to the British Columbia report, and every single one is a direct assault on patient safety. Half of health-care workers have likely seen it and did nothing, and are complicit in the racism. Perhaps half of all health-care leaders have seen something and have not acted professionally to stop it.

Racism is a disease. But unlike other diseases it does not reside in the body of the Indigenous patient trying to find care in a hospital today. It is under the control of others who intentionally and unintentionally use it as a weapon against their patients. And just like a disease, it is not eradicated with superficial actions; it is eradicated with deep and lasting change inside.

Until that time when change occurs in health care, Indigenous parents will continue to have conversations with our kids, that conversation about how to stay safe in the hospital, and how to avoid getting hurt in health care.

What will be Canada’s game-changer, the tipping point to force change in health care, to stamp out racism? Call it abuse. Call it a crime.