The benefit of the doubt is rarely given to Indigenous Canadians

Hill Times October 19, 2020

If 200 First Nations had committed the actions seen on video by white Canadians in Middle West Pubnico, N.S., we can all be sure that the RCMP would have broken out full tactical gear and called in military reinforcements. Instead, we hear about “mischief” and property damage by white Canadian men while the RCMP stand by. If it were First Nations committing such actions, it would be called terrorism and the military would lock down the media from reporting on it. This is what is called the benefit of the doubt, and giving the white mob the benefit of the doubt.

Blatant acts of racism against others of different cultures, for instance, the jokes from some white Canadians about the death of Joyce Echaquan in the past week, this is easy to see. Unfortunately, even blatant racism receives little-to-no official response from Quebec leaders, reinforcing systemic racism.

Another part on the spectrum of racism is the application of “the benefit of the doubt.” When racism is perpetuated over generations, it becomes unconscious bias. When the white Canadian is walking down the alley at night, the white bystander is much more likely to assume that individual needs help, but if that individual is Black or Indigenous the assumption is much more likely to reflect fear and bias. That white Canadian walking down the alley can bet on receiving the benefit of the doubt, but Indigenous Canadians can never bet on receiving it. It’s another part of the spectrum of systemic racism.

At this point it would be nice to see the RCMP do its internal work to ensure all Canadians are treated equally even during protests, but that would be a waste of column inches. But there is hope.

The federal government has convened an emergency meeting on racism against Indigenous peoples in the health-care system. It’s a start. But there may be barriers to real action because of unconscious bias in some federal government civil servants. In the same way that the RCMP somehow does not discipline racism in its own ranks, neither does the federal government. If the federal government wants to lead on anti-racism in the public health-care system, then it needs to walk the talk. It has to do the serious internal work to fully understand unconscious bias, and discipline and let go civil servants who cannot serve Indigenous Canadians with compassion. Then the federal government will have the credibility to do the real work required. And it’s serious work.

Ensure provinces and territories sign on to implement an anti-racism plan through law which requires Indigenous members on every provincial/territorial health authority, every large urban hospital and every public health agency and ministry or face defunding. We need a new national database with legally required tracking of racist incidents in public health by a trusted organization such as the Canadian Institute for Health Information.

Next, withhold funding from universities and colleges until they prove they can teach health professional programs with full inclusion and safety for Indigenous students and patients. Further, put provincial and territorial patient safety and quality councils on notice they have one year to fully enmesh Indigenous cultural safety into their mandates or be defunded. Enforce health colleges to fire and nationally blacklist health professionals who commit life threatening acts of racism, or be taken over by a civilian oversight body.

All this is a systemic approach to eliminating systemic racism in Canada’s public health-care system, led by resolute political leaders with Indigenous experts. A fear is the action will instead be a watered down as a toothless pilot and here’s how we would know: a decision to work with the willing partners instead of enforcing every minister of health to act, paired with a decision to do it cheaply, and to do it in policy rather than law. That’s the road paved with good intent, but paved with broken trust. All the requirements are in place for a systemic approach, and anything less will be failure.