Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond is a professor at the Peter A. Allard School of Law at the University of British Columbia.
The pandemic has magnified difficult truths about how Indigenous people are treated in Canadian society. These truths were starkly described in the recent independent review of racism in British Columbia’s health care system that I was asked to lead by Health Minister Adrian Dix. This review described the racial profiling and prejudice experienced by Indigenous people at the point of care in all regions of B.C. and how this results in poor health services and wellness outcomes. The report was titled In Plain Sight because this problem is well-known throughout the health care system and clearly evident from the data examined.
This problem is also in plain sight to all of us witnessing the racism unleashed upon Indigenous communities that – like all of humanity – are grappling with the impacts of the pandemic. Racist commentary and abuse have been directed toward Indigenous people, who have been wrongly blamed for transmission of the disease. This was recently experienced by the Snuneymuxw and Cowichan tribes on Vancouver Island, and similar commentary was seen in the territories of a number of other First Nations across B.C. As clearly demonstrated in one of the review’s findings, this racism is further compounded by systemic discrimination that requires Indigenous communities to fight and advocate for resources, data and acknowledgment of their rights to keep their people safe in the context of this horrible disease.
Let’s address the facts. Indigenous people have traumatic memories of past pandemics – and the survival of their communities demonstrates their resilience, experience and capability. Indigenous people are subject to discriminatory policies and neglectful funding arrangements that create vulnerabilities in their community infrastructure and increase the risk of transmission of contagious diseases. Owing to generations of colonialism, racism and intergenerational trauma, Indigenous people unfairly experience a higher burden of chronic disease, which increases their risk of dying from COVID-19. Indigenous people require urgent access to the vaccines because of these circumstances. These are truths grounded in evidence.
Many leaders have been responding appropriately. At the front lines, we are witnessing important rebuilding of the relationships needed between First Nations and health authorities, including the B.C. First Nations Health Authority, to roll out better pandemic responses and changes to the health care system. Local and provincial government leaders and health care officials have been speaking out against racism and standing up for the importance of respectful care and treatment. Mr. Dix and his colleagues have accepted the review and initiated serious efforts to address racism, improve access and quality of care, and ensure there is cultural safety for Indigenous people.
While many of these matters rest with the role of government and the health care system, we all have a responsibility to actively be anti-racist. Racism is incompatible with our common values. What measures can each of us take to be anti-racist and be allies to Indigenous people? It is necessary to be educated about the conditions Indigenous people have faced that are not of their own making, but have caused such intense vulnerability to this pandemic. We must use our voices and our privilege to shut down hateful, targeted behaviour or commentary in plain sight and grounded in ignorance, racism or denial of the truth. The burden of addressing racism must come off the shoulders of Indigenous people and leaders such as Chief Mike Wyse and Chief Chip Seymour.
To end racism, we have to name it, speak up and shut it down – calmly, with kindness and with the goal of creating safety for all (to paraphrase B.C. Provincial Health Officer Bonnie Henry). All of us need to take active measures to identify and remove racism in our society and all public services. We must stand together for respectful treatment of Indigenous people and First Nations, something that’s long overdue and unquestionably a pressing priority. We ask you to shut down anti-Indigenous racism wherever it appears and remind people that to be calm, kind and safe includes ending this type of commentary and targeting of Indigenous people.
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