The family of Winston Soenrese Nelson from Kanesatake Mohawk Territory says they’re still waiting for movement on a human rights complaint filed more than a year ago after their patriarch was allegedly sent home from a nearby hospital “to die,” wearing only a hospital gown, socks, and a soiled diaper.
“I just want him to be happy, and I just want him to get what he needs, what he wants, ” Nelson’s wife, Cheryl Scott, told APTN News in a recent interview at their home.
“If God’s willing, he’ll let [Winston] stay until I can get them for him.”
According to the complaint filed with the Quebec Human Rights Commission, Nelson, who was 71 at the time, was admitted to the Saint- Eustache Hospital on Dec. 30, 2020, about 25 km from his home, for complications related to a list of chronic conditions.
The complaint alleges Nelson, who lost most of his mobility, hearing, and speech after a series of strokes, “did not receive access to the proper medical care that he was entitled to,” and was “placed in a section of the hospital known to be the area where Mohawk patients are also placed.”
The most serious allegation against the hospital deals with Nelson’s care.
“On January 5, 2021, a doctor from the Hospital called Victim Scott and informed her that Victim Nelson’s health was deteriorating, that there was nothing that hospital staff could do, and that she needed to pick him up to have him die at home,” the complaint said.
“The Victims (Scott and Nelson) believe that the staff at the Hospital mistreated Victim Nelson in this fashion because they knew of his Mohawk background and his Kanetasake residency, and that the Victims are English-speaking.”
Scott made arrangements to have her husband picked up. According to the complaint, she called the hospital three times to verify her husband would be properly dressed for the weather in the clothes she had provided the hospital. According to the statement, the nurses told her they were “getting her husband dressed.”
The temperature outside was between -1 and -7.
When Nelson arrived home in the taxi, the driver handed her the bags containing his clothes that “had not been opened.”
“Nelson was in the taxi wearing only a hospital gown that was not tied at the back, leaving one side of the gown open and exposing his leg. Victim Nelson was shivering from the cold,” the complaint said.
To add to Nelson’s exposure to the elements, his “incontinence brief” that he was wearing “was soiled and had not been changed for several hours.” His hearing aid was also missing from his possessions when he arrived home.
Scott is Nelson’s de-facto caretaker: dressing, feeding, and bathing him whenever necessary.
But she’ll tell you herself: the days are rigorous, and the nights are sleepless.
“There’s not enough help for us,” Nelson’s wife Cheryl Scott told APTN News.
In an email, the Quebec Human Rights Commission said they couldn’t provide APTN News with a status update on the Nelsons’ “systemic racism” complaint, citing confidentiality and privacy.
The wait is wearing on the family, who are struggling with the cost of Nelson’s care, and also struggling to accept the conditions where he’s experiencing end of life.
The Nelson home is ravaged by mould. A wooden ramp system – built for easier access to the house – leans precariously over a ditch.
“Even if he was to pass away tonight, I couldn’t even afford an urn for this man,” Scott added.
‘Memories you try to put behind you’
Due to Winston’s overlapping health issues, the Nelsons are no strangers to a hospital environment.
Cheryl recounted to APTN a number of previous incidents where she felt the treatment by staff at the St. Eustache hospital was inadequate, or “prejudiced.”
In her telling, there’s a pattern of neglect or hostile treatment towards Kanesatake members who have no choice but to seek help there.
“It’s just memories you try to put behind you, but you can’t,” she explained.
The complaint outlines the impact this visit had including the “callous” nature in which the doctor told Scott that there was nothing the hospital could do for her husband.
“Scott’s hurt was further intensified by the phone call she received from the hospital doctor on January 5, informing her that nothing could be done for Victim Nelson, and that she needed to take him home to die. Victim Scott believes that the call was callous and lacked the sensitivity that is reasonably expected of medical professionals towards their patients’ family,” the complaint said.
The complaint also alleges that “Hospital staff had previously used racial and derogatory terms against Victim Nelson such as calling him “Mohawk,” “dog” and “idiot.”
The Laurentides Regional Health Authority, which oversees the St. Eustache hospital, told APTN in an email the incident was investigated internally; the circumstances of Nelson’s discharge were found to be “inadequate” and lacking sensitivity.
“In general, no patient leaves in a hospital gown during discharge, unless a particular medical situation requires it,” according to the email.
“The conclusions of the investigation do not indicate discriminatory behaviour towards the patient, but rather the lack of experience of those on staff that day.”
‘Quite a challenge’: How do you prove ‘systemic racism’ is the problem?
The Nelsons initiated their human rights complaint in early 2021 through the Montreal-based Centre for Research-Action on Race Relations or CRARR.
Filing a human rights complaint on the basis of “systemic racism” in services is relatively new, but picking up speed after a Quebec coroner found it contributed to Joyce Echaquan’s death at Joliette hospital, according to Fo Niemi, CRARR’s executive director.
“The Quebec Human Rights Commission doesn’t have a very clear and comprehensive policy guideline as to how to process complaints of systemic racism, particularly in services such as health care,” Niemi explained.
However, it’s no secret Quebec’s health care network is under immense strain post-pandemic, so in order to prove “systemic racism” is at issue, an investigating body would have to prove an existing pattern of “disproportionately negative” treatment towards a racialized group.
“We have to look for anecdotal evidence, we have to look at, basically, stories and reports, and the narratives from other people from the same community or from the same group that have similar stories to tell,” Niemi explained.
The reputation of St. Eustache hospital is well-known within Kanesatake, especially for front-line workers like Rob Bonspiel, who runs the community’s ambulance service.
“Ninety per cent of the calls that come out of our community are transported to St. Eustache,” Bonspiel told APTN. “There’s a lot of individuals who have voiced their disapproval as to the service they’re getting at the hospital.
“Language is a huge issue, and it seems to be the biggest factor when it comes to complaints coming from the community.”
Language is also cited in Nelson’s complaint with the human rights commission. Scott said staff often communicated only in French knowing she was an English speaker.
“The Victims allege that the denial of adequate care and health services experienced by Victim Nelson is due to systemic racism, which included a pattern of racially hurtful comments; minimizing and ignoring health needs and calls for assistance; and deliberately providing care below ordinary health care standards compared to White patients,” the complaint said. “This leads to persistent lack of action, significant delays in action and misdiagnoses.
“In addition, the Victims allege that the hospital has a history of past racist practices against people of color. In the fall of 2020, the Hospital sent an email to ten job placement agencies, requesting a candidate who ‘must be a white woman’ to work with a patient with discriminatory racial preferences.”
What’s changed since Joyce Echaquan?
After Joyce Echaquan died in September 2020, Quebec earmarked funding for a number of “cultural safety” measures to correct these issues, including the hiring of interpreters, or cultural “navigators” in hospitals serving Indigenous communities.
APTN News inquired with the Regional Health Authority about new measures implemented to improve the relationship between Indigenous patients and staff, such as an English-to-French translator.
In their response, a spokesperson explained translation services are available for families on request while indicating there’s now a “strategic committee” overseeing cultural security in services.
The network’s 17,000 employees are also mandated to take an “Indigenous Awareness” sensitivity training course to “allow a better understanding of the customs and realities of the community,” according to their email.
For the Nelsons, it’s simply too little too late: Cheryl and Winston both said they will continue to avoid treatment at St. Eustache, despite it being the hospital closest to home.
“You can’t do that to people. You can’t do that to their minds. You can’t call up people and say ‘hey guess what? Come take your husband home because he’s dying and we don’t want him here, so he’s going to go home and die,” Scott said.
“[After] 31 years, what are you going to do? You’re going to say ‘oh, it’s okay,’ and let it go?”