Evidence of racism against Indigenous patients is growing: Is a reckoning in Canadian health care overdue?

Click to play video: 'Research identifies systemic racism in Alberta’s health system'
Research identifies systemic racism in Alberta’s health system
WATCH: Research identifies systemic racism in Alberta's health system – Jan 19, 2022

Pamela Beebe has spent much of her professional life advocating for the rights of indigenous people.

“A lot of the work that I do is, whenever anyone asks me to talk about truth and reconciliation, I readily agree,” the Kainai First Nation member said from her home in Calgary.

In her private life, however, Beebe has had to spend a great deal of time advocating for family members who need medical care.

“I guess in our family we call it the racial tension that exists. When somebody has to go to the emergency room and gets sent home right away, nobody is surprised in my family,” said Beebe.  “We get asked immediately: ‘Are you on drugs?’  ‘Are you high?’ ‘Why are your eyes red?’ All these questions that are just not appropriate, rather than: ‘What’s going on?’ and ‘What do you need help with?’

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This week, Alberta researchers published a study in the Canadian Medical Association Journal that shows evidence of widespread discrimination against indigenous patients in Alberta hospital emergency departments. Data collected from 11 million emergency room visits between 2012 and 2017 found that emergency room staff consistently rated First Nations people as less urgent than non-Indigenous patients.

READ MORE: Alberta First Nations people tend to get a lower level of emergency care: study

Cheryl Barnabe is a co-author of the study. She is a professor of medicine/community health sciences at the University of Calgary and a member of the Metis Nation of Alberta.

“I think many of us recognize that this is the daily experience in the emergency departments,” said Barnabe. “But I think having the ability to show it in this large scale, with these large numbers, really puts it into perspective. This isn’t just a one-time event or a bad day that one health-care professional has had. This is a daily constant experience that we see in our province.”

The Alberta research adds to a growing body of evidence that systemic anti-indigenous racism in health care is a national problem.  In November of 2020, the B.C. government apologized after a months-long investigation found widespread racism in the health-care system including fear from Indigenous people to access hospitals due to racism.

READ MORE: The B.C. government apologizes for systemic racism towards indigenous people in B.C.’s health-care system

The report called for mandatory health-professional education, better public education about Indigenous history and health, and a new School for Indigenous Medicine.

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The death of Joyce Echaquan, an Atikamekw woman who was subjected to racist taunts by health-care staff as she lay dying in hospital has also prompted calls for change. Echaquan, a 37-year-old mother of seven, posted a video on Facebook live of the derogatory comments made toward her by a nurse and orderly. She died shortly afterwards on Sept. 28, 2020 at a hospital in Joliette, northeast of Montreal.

An inquiry into her death found Echaquan’s death was accidental, but preventable — and that racism and prejudice contributed to it.

The coroner called on Quebec to recognize systemic racism within the health care system and recommended more training for staff on racial sensitivity and standards of care.

READ MORE:  Joyce Echaquan’s death ‘unacceptable,’ Quebec coroner says in addressing inquiry findings 

Gabrielle Lindstrom, an Indigenous ways of knowing education development consultant at the University of Calgary, said racism within the health system has become a barrier to access for many First Nations, Métis and Inuit people.

“I can’t speak to all indigenous people but definitely within my own family, it makes us very reticent to access health care services,” she said.  “We don’t do so unless we absolutely have to.”

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Lindstrom believes a reckoning is overdue.

“What needs to happen is critical anti-racist education that starts right at kindergarten and is reinforced at home,” she said.  “What we have in motion is a pattern of intergenerational racism that has been passed down in settler families. And once we start to understand that and have a consensus about what racism means and how it lives in society, then we can start really seeing systemic changes in an equitable and fair way and indigenous people will not have to keep dying in these systems.”

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