Northern Health says region’s COO will lead review of Kitimat hospital racism complaint

‘These allegations are taken extremely seriously and we believe that the review underway will allow us to understand what occurred…’

Northern Health

The hospital in Kitimat where Sarah Morrison went first seeking help. Photo: Kathleen Martens/APTN.

Northern Health, which operates the health care system in northern British Columbia, says its chief operating officer for the region will lead an investigation into allegations that a couple from the Haisla Nation was discriminated against at the Kitimat and Terrace hospitals.

Sarah Morrison and her husband Ronald Luft filed a statement of claim Feb. 10 against Northern Health, Mills Memorial Hospital (MMH) in Terrace, Kitimat General Hospital (KGH), a nurse and five doctors.

The claim, which has not been tested in court, seeks unspecified general, special and punitive damages and details a series of events from their experience on Jan. 27. The couple were expecting their first child – a girl.

The child was full-term but stillborn hours later via natural childbirth in Terrace, roughly 45 minutes away, after the mother said the doctor in the Kitimat hospital turned her away.

All those named have 21 days to file a statement of defence.

“The Northern Health Board has endorsed a review of the recent allegations of racism in healthcare at its hospitals. These allegations are taken extremely seriously and we believe that the review underway will allow us to understand what occurred from the experience of this family, the staff and physicians,” according to a statement released Friday by Northern Health.

Ciro Panessa, the chief operating officer for northwest health delivery service, and Dr. Jaco Fourie, who is the medical director for the area, will lead the investigation.

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The statement says the review will “seek expert guidance from Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond to ensure the review is carried out appropriately and that the process reflects the principles of cultural safety and humility.”

Turpel-Lafond released a review in December 2020 called In Plain Sight: Addressing Indigenous-specific Racism and Discrimination in BC Health Care. It was launched after rumours started that some health practitioners were making a game out of guessing the alcohol rate of Indigenous patients.

Turpel Lafond said she couldn’t corroborate that story, but wrote in the report “there is widespread stereotyping, racism and profiling of Indigenous people. Racism limits access to medical treatment and negatively affects the health and wellness of Indigenous peoples in B.C.”

The statement from Northern Health Friday says the review will “look at hospital-wide practice and care to identify opportunities to improve the quality of care and services provided.”

Northern Health says Morrison, her family and the healthcare providers will be have the opportunity to participate in the review.

The Haisla Nation also issued a release stating “this particular case has sparked a wider debate about equitable access to health care within our territory, between Indigenous and non-Indigenous patients. Our Council shares the concern of our members relating to recent events, and we believe that this matter must be examined to understand where health care could have been provided differently.

“As the investigation on this particular case carries on, Haisla Nation Council does reaffirm that racism and inequitable access to health care is not acceptable and every opportunity must be taken to improve care when it falls short for our members.”

Northern Health says there is no timeline to complete the review.

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