Majority of Indigenous Patients and Workers Say They Experienced Racism in BC Health Care: Report

In light of a new review into a racist game being played in emergency rooms, B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix offered an apology to Indigenous peoples in the province.
November 30, 2020, 8:07pm
British Columbia Health Minister Adrian Dix speaks during an announcement about a new regional cancer centre, in Surrey, B.C., on August 6, 2020.
British Columbia Health Minister Adrian Dix speaks during an announcement about a new regional cancer centre, in Surrey, B.C., on August 6, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

The majority of Indigenous peoples who access the healthcare system in British Columbia have reported experiencing racism in some form,  including Indigenous healthcare workers, a new government report says. 

In July, the B.C. government launched an investigation of racial stereotyping by healthcare workers against Indigenous patients, after allegations surfaced of a racist guessing game played in emergency rooms. 

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Lawyer Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, who was tasked by the provincial Ministry of Health to lead the review, revealed on Monday that there is no evidence to support allegations that a “Price Is Right”-type game guessing Indigenous patients’ blood alcohol levels is being widely played by healthcare workers.  

However, the investigation did find extensive anti-Indigenous racism and racial profiling within the health care sector. 

These findings are based on survey responses, phone calls, and emails from about 9,000 people, plus data from over 12,000 Indigenous peoples who responded to a COVID-19 survey talking about how the pandemic has affected them. 

Eighty-four percent of Indigenous peoples engaged in the investigation said they experienced some form of discrimination at the hands of health care workers, including verbal and physical abuse. 

“I am afraid to go to any hospital. When I do have to, I dress up like I’m going to church (in order to receive proper treatment). It’s ridiculous,” read one Indigenous patient’s report, presented in the results of investigation.

“I avoid the hospital at all costs because as an Indigenous person I feel unsafe and feel like they won’t bother treating me,” read another.

Among Indigenous healthcare workers, 52 per cent reported racist encounters at work, mostly in the form of discriminatory comments from their colleagues.

About 10 percent of non-Indigenous health care workers who reported witnessing racism directed at Indigenous patients made racist comments in the survey themselves, which came as a surprise to Turpel-Lafond.

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Over 500 of these witness accounts were followed up with arguments that Indigenous peoples have no excuse for their suffering because they receive financial support from the government, she said. 

Comments like “stop playing the victim,” “all lives matter,” “Indigenous people get free stuff,” and “it’s not our fault for their suffering” were also prevalent in these accounts, according to Turpel-Lafond.

The main reasons why anti-Indigenous racism persists within the health care system include employees not being willing to speak up, and a lack of accountability within leadership, the report said.

Systemic racism in health care, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the province’s overdose crisis have been found to disproportionately affect Indigenous peoples, Turpel-Lafond said.

As a result of these findings, the report makes 24 recommendations to the provincial Ministry of Health, some of which could be implemented immediately.

These recommendations are centred around improving accountability; increasing Indigenous leadership in health care; considering a joint degree program in medicine and Indigenous medicine; and establishing a new School for Indigenous medicine.

“Taken together, they create a blueprint for rooting out racism and discrimination, and ensuring that the human rights of Indigenous people to respect dignity and equitable health care are upheld,” said Turpel-Lafond.

One of the first steps Turpel-Lafond called for is for the minister of health, Adrian Dix, to apologize for systemic racism in health care, and to create a new B.C. Indigenous Health Officer position in government.

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Dix responded immediately, saying, “I want to make an unequivocal apology as Minister of Health to those who have experienced racism in accessing health care now and in the past.”

“It is my determination that racism will have no place here. I’m committed to making all of the changes outlined in this report.”

The report also called for the creation of a task force to oversee the prompt implementation of these recommendations. Dix announced that this task force is to be created immediately.

This in-depth probe to investigate the extent of racism prevalent within B.C.’s health care system is the first of its kind in Canada. 

Follow Brishti Basu on Twitter.