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Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond speaks to a reporter in Vancouver on November 13, 2015.

DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

A former judge and independent watchdog has dismissed allegations that organized, racist games were played in B.C. emergency rooms in which health care workers guessed the blood alcohol levels of Indigenous patients.

Instead, Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond found a “much more widespread and insidious problem” with Indigenous-specific stereotyping, racism and discrimination in British Columbia’s health care system. “At the point of care, there is direct prejudice and racism, touching all points of care and impacting Indigenous people in B.C.,” she told a news conference on Monday as she released her report, In Plain Sight.

Even in the surveys conducted for her investigation into the treatment of Indigenous patients, 13 per cent of health care workers responded with language she describes as racist. As an example, a health care worker described an abusive interaction that they witnessed involving an Indigenous person, but then explained it away because “those people” abuse alcohol. Other survey responses from health care workers included comments that Indigenous people “should get over it, they should stop being victims, it’s their fault,” Ms. Turpel-Lafond told reporters.

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Health Minister Adrian Dix pledged on Monday to act on the report’s recommendations, starting with the appointment of new Indigenous health liaisons to be appointed in each of the province’s five health authorities.

“I want to make an unequivocal apology for those who have experienced racism in accessing health care services,” Mr. Dix added. “It’s toxic for care.”

The findings are based on responses from more than 9,000 Indigenous people and health care workers. The report points to instances of verbal and physical abuse, as well as denial and delay of services, inappropriate pain management, and medical mistakes. The result, it concluded, is that access to medical treatment is limited and negatively affects the health and wellness of Indigenous people.

Ms. Turpel-Lafond made two dozen recommendations, including whistleblower protection to ensure health care workers can come forward when they see wrongdoing. But she said she could not impose remedies for the incidents she recorded, as her mandate did not permit it.

Cheryl Casimer of the First Nations Summit political executive said the province needs to move swiftly to enact change. “It is offensive to know that there are Indigenous people in B.C. that are afraid to seek medical treatment because of the racism they may face,” she said.

Mike Old, spokesman for the Hospital Employees’ Union, called on the government to follow through with “changes that promote a ‘speak up’ culture in the health care system.”

Mr. Dix appointed Ms. Turpel-Lafond last June to investigate after the Métis Nation BC reported an allegation to the ministry. A health care worker had described an organized game called the “Price is Right” in which emergency room staff in multiple hospitals competed to guess the blood alcohol level of Indigenous patients.

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Ms. Turpel-Lafond found no evidence to substantiate the allegation of an organized game, but said she found anecdotal and episodic evidence of multiple activities in the health care system that resemble these allegations.

The report was released as issues of negligence and anti-Indigenous racism in Canadian hospitals are driving a national call for action.

In one recent incident, Joyce Echaquan, a member of the Atikamekw Nation, was seeking medical help at a Quebec hospital in September, when she went live on Facebook and recorded the racist taunts she endured in the last moments of her life. It showed the 37-year-old mother of seven screaming in pain while two health care workers were in the room, including one who told her in French, “You’re stupid as hell.”

Mr. Dix said the report from Ms. Turpel-Lafond can offer lessons as the entire country grapples with racism in health care.

An Indigenous physician told B.C.’s investigators that they experienced racism on the job, such being asked to look after their “drunk relatives” in the emergency room. “I have refused to go to hospital when I’ve had life-threatening infections because I am scared of the treatment I’d receive,” the doctor told the review.

A non-Indigenous registered nurse offered the review a number of examples of the racism they witnessed, including a patient in acute pain in the emergency room being told they were drug-seeking and to “go back to the Rez.” In another instance, they recalled an Indigenous female patient being referred to as a “Squaw.”

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Ms. Turpel-Lafond said the issues are not new, and commitments to change have been made for more than a decade. But she found there has been no accountability for eliminating Indigenous-specific racism in the B.C. health care system, no system-wide data, and no monitoring of progress.


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