An urgent meeting will be held on systemic racism in health, Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller said Thursday, as he pointed to the mistreatment and death of Joyce Echaquan in a Quebec hospital and the clear demands that Ottawa has heard for change.
Mr. Miller, who held a news conference in Ottawa along with officials from his department, said cabinet ministers including Health Minister Patty Hajdu and Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett have talked about next steps needed to address systemic racism in the health care system.
Additional details on the meeting will be announced soon, Mr. Miller said, adding contributions from Indigenous partners are required.
“We will be reaching out to them today to convene an urgent meeting to address racism experienced by Indigenous peoples in Canada’s health care system,” he said.
Mr. Miller said there is, without question, a jurisdictional challenge as the country works to ensure Indigenous peoples get first-class care. Although Ottawa funds and sets standards for health care, provinces and territories deliver most of the services across the country.
The federal government has faced increased political pressure in recent days to address systemic racism in health after a seven-minute video of Ms. Echaquan’s treatment in a hospital was live-streamed on Facebook.
It showed the 37-year-old mother screaming in pain while two health care workers were in the room, including one who told her in French, “You’re stupid as hell.” Another woman said, “You made some bad choices, my dear.”
The video of Ms. Echaquan’s final moments alive sparked national condemnation last week. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Canadians were shocked to see what happened and that it was an example of systemic racism when someone needed help the most.
Advocates including Indigenous physicians also said that what was captured on video was not an isolated incident and that systemic racism is national in scope and demands a countrywide response.
Jane Philpott, the dean of the health sciences faculty at Queen’s University who served as both health minister and Indigenous services minister in the Trudeau government’s first term, said the fact that the federal government is drawing attention to systemic racism in health is something to be welcomed.
“The federal government has the opportunity of convening a broad group of individuals who need to have a voice in this conversation,” she said in an interview.
“The signal that this sends will be really critical to say that enough is more than enough, and we have watched and stood by and seen how people have been treated in health systems and seen when people die senselessly."
Dr. Philpott said racism affects all institutions, including the justice and correctional systems, but there is a particular need to address it in health.
“We are in a point in time in society where I think people who have not been awakened to racism and aware of what it looks like, for a variety of tragic reasons, are coming to understand that health care looks different based on who is interacting with the system," she said. “We need to really take advantage of this point in time.”
Ottawa has also faced calls to take greater action including from the lead investigator into allegations of systemic racism in British Columbia’s health care system.
Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, who is investigating allegations that emergency staff at a B.C. hospital played a game to guess blood-alcohol levels of Indigenous patients, said in a recent interview that Ottawa should enact national standards for the care of Indigenous patients.
The Canada Health Act lays out the primary objective of health care policy as “to protect, promote and restore the physical and mental well-being of residents of Canada and to facilitate reasonable access to health services without financial or other barriers.”
Ms. Turpel-Lafond said: “When the federal government is funding the system and the federal government has primary responsibility for First Nations people, and the federal government has this national health act under which all of our services fall, we need to raise this up to the national level and ensure that there is an effective and appropriate response across Canada."
Senator Murray Sinclair, who chaired the Truth and Reconciliation Commission probing Canada’s residential school legacy, also told The Globe that systemic racism clearly amounts to a national problem and the federal government is “really dropping the ball here by refusing to be the one to intervene and to show some leadership.”
Transfer payments are made to provinces without a requirement that policies be established to redress systemic racism and bias, he said.
“The federal government has a considerable economic club here that they are refusing to use to assist people of colour, the most vulnerable people in Canada, to be treated more humanely,” Mr. Sinclair said.
Mr. Miller said Thursday that if there’s any conclusion to be drawn from the TRC report, the Viens Commission that examined the relationship between Indigenous peoples and public services in Quebec, and the national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls is that “we have all dropped the ball for too long.”
“There is an immense amount of work to do,” he said. “There’s an immense amount of responsibility that lies on the federal government’s shoulders.”
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