Anti-Indigenous racism in healthcare should have been addressed years ago

A more proactive approach to dismantling all forms of systemic racism is needed in Canada

It’s no secret that Indigenous people suffer worse health outcomes in Canada. Photo: Daan Stevens / Unsplash

By: Nicole Magas, Opinions Editor

There are a lot of conversations going on right now about the issue of over-policing and ongoing police brutality in Canada — particularly against Black and Indigenous folks. While this issue is important and absolutely needs to be addressed as quickly as possible, it is equally important to not forget that systemic racism and its fatal consequences are not limited to just law enforcement. The healthcare system itself is steeped in anti-Indigenous racism — which results in shocking levels of neglect and abuse for an industry that has “care” as part of its name. 

Perhaps the most recent example of striking racism in the healthcare system is the revelation that E.R. staff at some hospitals in BC played a “game” of guess-the-blood-alcohol-level of their Indigenous in-patients. But the issue here isn’t so much the shock that such a racist game existed — Indigenous people have been aware for decades that racism is embedded in the healthcare system. Rather, it’s that these revelations suddenly came to light amid a national upheaval against systemic racism, when these problems should have been stamped out years ago.

The “game” played by doctors is based on a stereotype that assumes all Indigenous folks have substance abuse problems. This stereotype has deep roots in Canada’s brutal colonial past. It persists today as a justification for dismissing Indigenous folks on the basis of a logically flawed, racist moral standard. In the healthcare system, this means that Indigenous patients seeking care for the same problems anyone else in the population might go to the hospital for are often pre-judged as simply being intoxicated, rather than in medical distress.

This prejudice has very real and often fatal consequences. In 2008, Brian Sinclair, an Indigenous man living in Winnipeg, sought help at a local hospital for abdominal pain due to a blocked catheter. Disoriented from his growing bladder infection, Sinclair was dismissed by medical staff as drunk. They left him unattended in the waiting room for almost two full days to “sleep it off.” He died waiting for the help of people who refused to believe he could be anything other than intoxicated.

Instances of Indigenous folks being dismissed or denied care by the medical system are far from rare. A few years ago I listened to a CBC Radio episode that detailed the story of Sandy Mock, who was denied care at two hospitals after they misdiagnosed her stroke for intoxication on the basis of her Indigeneity. Thinking I could easily find this episode again for the purpose of this article I plopped “doctors mistake stroke for intoxication Indigenous health” into a Google search and received back a dump of other stroke misdiagnoses amongst Indigenous patients — none of which were even Mock. What does that tell you about the systemic racism that’s more than apparent in our healthcare system?

Which is why it’s so angering to hear BC Health Minister Adrian Dix claim that he was unaware of a report detailing anti-Indigenous racism in the healthcare system. It doesn’t take an official report to be cognizant that, as a marginalized community, Indigenous peoples suffer more from health inequities than any other group in Canada. An ounce of curiosity into the experiences of Indigenous peoples in healthcare would have uncovered the fact that racism plays a large role in these outcomes. Which, of course, is a completely separate issue from the fact that apparently a report called “Mapping the Harms of Anti-Indigenous Racism in the BC Health Care System” never even made it to the health minister’s desk.

Government agencies need to start taking a proactive, rather than a reactive, approach to solving the systemic racism that has been embedded in social, legal, and medical practices for far too long. It shouldn’t take people dying at the hands of the police or from neglect in our hospitals for real change to be started. The racism is real. The inequalities are real. They exist. Stop focusing on the symptoms alone and start seriously implementing a cure for the actual disease.