Racism in health care review finds stereotypes drive ‘abusive interactions’ with Indigenous patients


It’s a story too many Indigenous people share – poor treatment when accessing medical care.

Reports, inquests, reviews across the country for decades show racism in healthcare is real, yet nothing so far has fixed it.

Cory Ashley’s wife, Lillian Vanasse was taken by ambulance to the Hanna, Alberta hospital last Christmas. She had a high fever and couldn’t breathe.

Her husband begged staff to do something to help her but says they seemed convinced she was a drug addict. Within hours she was dead. He recorded video her in her hospital bed but as removed for being disruptive.

Alberta Health Services and the RCMP are investigating what happened while Ashley has started a campaign to have medical staff wear body cams, hoping it makes them treat patients better and hold them accountable when they don’t.

A review of B.C.’s heath care system in 2020 found 84% of Indigenous people interviewed, experienced racist treatment when accessing health care, no matter if they were in a big city hospital or a small town.

The review was led by lawyer Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond and a team of Indigenous women investigators. They concluded at the root of it was racial profiling.

“The pernicious stereotypes like my parents’ generation faced — they are still there,” Turpel-Lafond said.

The review surveyed 150 informants, 2,780 Indigenous people and 5,440 non-Indigenous and Indigenous health workers. Several hundreds of people also called or emailed a tipline that had been set up.  600 people called or emailed the tip line set up to obtain information.

“These are the top stereotypes in B.C. and maybe they are worse elsewhere, maybe they are the same, I don’t know. First Nations and Metis are less worthy, drinkers, are alcoholics, are drug seeking. A lot of attitudes are that First Nations and Metis parents are bad parents because of the negative information in the healthcare system from the child welfare system,” Turpel-Lafond explained. “That First Nations are ‘frequent flyers’ in the emergency room.  They are not treated as well in the emergency room and there are a lot of hostile and abusive interactions.

“The stereotypes are really profound and the stereotypes drive what I call abusive interactions, verbal, physical abuse, security getting called, and sometimes medical mistakes, ignoring and shunning people.”

She believes if every province followed B.C.’s lead to conduct such a review, they would find similar findings.  The effect is many Indigenous people avoid doctors unless they feel it’s an absolute emergency.

“This has impacted the well being of First Nations, Metis and Inuit people for a long time and now it’sout in the open,” Turpel-Lafond said. “But it didn’t change because we brought it out into the open — now we have to actually deal with it. First Nations people said to me – give the racism back to the system, it’s not our problem it’s their problem and they need to deal with it. I think that’s where we are today,  they system needs to deal with it and we need to stop shouldering the responsibility to fix a broken system, the health care system needs to do the fixing.”

In Quebec, the government has acknowledged racism exists among some health care professionals but insist systemic racism in health care does not, explained APTN’s Montreal correspondent Lindsay Richardson. This despite two Atikamekw people dying within weeks of each other last fall after being berated by hospital staff in two different communities – Joyce Echaquan recorded nurses taunting her with racist remarks as she lay dying.

Georges Herve-Awashish told family he suffered similar insults in hospital and feared for his safety so he left without being treated and died.

Host, Producer / Winnipeg

Melissa is a proud Red River Metis and award-winning journalist who has spent more than 24 years covering crime, courts, politics, business and entertainment for newspapers in four provinces.
She then joined APTN Investigates in 2009 and APTN National News in 2018 and in that time has garnered numerous awards and nominations including from the World Indigenous Television Broadcasters Network (2013), Canadian Association of Journalists (2016, 2019) and Canadian Screen Awards (2018, 2019).