Talks underway to root out systemic racism in healthcare system


Over the next two days Indigenous Services Canada (ISC) will host a meeting between federal, provincial and Indigenous leaders, as well as health professionals, to discuss ways of ending systemic racism in Canada’s healthcare system.

The meeting is a follow-up to the emergency meeting held in September after the death of Joyce Echaquan.

Echaquan was a 37-year-old Atikamekw mother who died in a hospital in Joliette, Que., after posting live videos to social media of racial comments from hospital staff.

racism in health care
Manawan mother Joyce Echaquan in an undated photo.

Marc Miller, minister of ISC, will be going into the meeting with the understanding that systemic racism exists in healthcare but stressed changes won’t come overnight.

“Canadians often get frustrated at politicians that simply call things out and then don’t do anything afterwards, so I think Canadians will expect concrete answers, concrete measures,” Miller said.

The death of Joyce Echaquan is not an isolated case and Indigenous people across the country are far too familiar with mistreatment from Canadian institutions like hospitals.

The lawyer who oversaw the investigation into racism in British Columbia’s health care system submitted her findings to the provincial government at the end of November.

The review was launched after allegations health care workers were playing a ‘price is right’ type of game where they would guess the blood alcohol levels of First Nations and Metis patients.

The report, In Plain Sight, found there was no organized game but did find episodes where there was guessing about blood alcohol levels, and much worse.

“What I found in fact, was despite some guessing happening here and there, at the direct point of care with Indigenous people, First Nations and Metis in British Columbia, I found hundreds of examples of direct, personal racism and implicit bias.”

Like Miller, a number of jurisdictions in Canada have now come to admit that systemic racism is embedded in its institutions with the exception of Quebec.

This was confirmed by Quebec’s Indigenous affairs minister Ian Lafreniere in November who was reported as saying it will not prevent him from working together with Indigenous people but, “We agree to disagree on the systemic approach.”

One person who disagreed was Lorraine Whitman, president of the Native Woman’s Association of Canada.

“When you see a video and it’s already there and you see the systemic racism that’s there, I’m sorry but in order for anything to be corrected or to be moved forward you first have to admit there is a problem. And we know there’s a problem,” Whitman told APTN.

At the news conference on Wednesday, ISC was asked if they had considered withholding healthcare federal funds form provinces who do not address racism in healthcare.

Miller responded saying he didn’t think it was a good idea particularly during a pandemic.

Miller pointed out healthcare is a jurisdiction “jealously guarded” by provinces.

“But when it comes to issues like racism, every leader in this country has a leadership role to play in calling it out and getting rid of it,” Miller said.

In terms of the two day meetings, Whitman sent out a press release Wednesday with concerns that Indigenous women are not getting enough of a platform for the upcoming talks and said her organization is only allotted one five minute segment on Thursday to present their testimony.

She would have liked to have been given opening remarks at the beginning of the proceedings and said hearing voices from an Indigenous womens lens is beneficial and women’s voices need to be heard.

Whitman will be presenting to the group on Thursday on subjects such as women’s lived experiences within the healthcare system, the forced sterilization of Indigenous women and how it is a form of genocide.

Reporter / Ottawa

Originally from the Cree Nation of Chisasibi on the eastern coast of James Bay, Quebec, Jamie has lived in Ottawa since 2015. Trained in journalism at Carleton University, he has worked as a freelance print journalist and as a writer/researcher for the Cree unit of CBC North out of Montreal. Jamie was hired as the reporter/correspondent for the Ottawa bureau in October 2019.