Systemic racism in health care and its impact on Indigenous patients will come under the microscope on Friday in an urgent discussion convened by the federal government in response to a video showing the abusive treatment of Joyce Echaquan before she died at a Quebec hospital.
Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller said on Thursday the health care system failed Ms. Echaquan and has failed Indigenous peoples.
“It is a failure of all levels of government,” he said at a news conference.
Mr. Miller also said Ms. Echaquan’s seven-minute video, which was live-streamed on Facebook, reinforced distrust in the health care system, the success of which depends on trust.
A current concern for the federal government is that the experiences of Indigenous people in the health care system may deter them from getting tested for COVID-19 and from receiving the seasonal flu shot and eventually a coronavirus vaccine.
“That trust is essential,” Mr. Miller said. “We must earn it and we must maintain it.”
On Sept. 28, Ms. Echaquan, a member of the Atikamekw Nation, was seeking medical help at a hospital in Joliette, about 70 kilometres northeast of Montreal, when she went live on the social-media website and recorded taunts she endured in the last moments of her life. The 37-year-old mother of seven can be heard 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. Miller, Crown Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett and other ministers will hold a virtual meeting on Friday. About 200 participants have been invited, including Indigenous doctors, experts and officials from the provinces and territories.
The meeting will focus on the experiences of Indigenous peoples with systemic racism in federal, provincial and territorial health systems, Mr. Miler said on Thursday. He added that participants will be asked to reflect on the information shared and an existing body of work on systemic racism in health care to inform next steps.
On Tuesday, the chief commissioner of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls told The Globe and Mail that the way Ms. Echaquan was treated before her death is a “grim reminder” of the failings of health care services in Canada.
Marion Buller also said the inquiry heard from Indigenous women, girls and trans people across the country who expressed consistent concerns, including what she called truths about systemic racism in health facilities, whether they were in rural, suburban or urban areas.
“It was a consistent theme all across Canada,” she said, adding that the inquiry found issues in health must be remedied. “I am very sorry for the Echaquan family and what they’ve had to endure. But it is not the first time.”
Mr. Miller also said on Thursday that the concerns are not new, but they are urgent.
Veronica McKinney, the director of the University of Saskatchewan’s Northern Medical Services and an Indigenous physician, said in an interview she will participate in Friday’s meeting. She stressed that the issue must be looked at through the lens of patients who have experienced discrimination in health.
“If they feel that, they’re out that door,” she said. “And why wouldn’t they be? Who in their right mind would stay to be traumatized?”
Dr. McKinney also said she has seen, felt and experienced systemic racism.
“It is the most horrific thing you can imagine to be there by the bedside and to see these things going on, it is like a bad nightmare," she said.
“I know there’s lots of good team members, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, who are really trying hard, but I just don’t think there’s enough happening. If we can see this in our country today, there’s a problem. There’s a major problem.”
Mr. Miller said Ottawa does not have all the levers to address the issue and act on changes needed. But he acknowledged the federal government has a legal obligation to First Nations on reserve and Inuit in the funding and delivery of health care.
He also said Ottawa has a clear constitutional right to place conditions on federal health transfers to the provinces, but that he does not believe withholding funds, particularly during a pandemic, is the right way forward.
"People’s lives are at risk,” Mr. Miller said, adding that governments need to exercise their jurisdiction properly, particularly when it comes to serving Indigenous peoples.
The minister also said it would be naive, given the severity of the problem, to think all answers will be available by Friday afternoon.
“Denying this problem will not make this go away. Racism kills and systemic racism kills systemically.”
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