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23-year-old Corporal Connor Sutton who was directed to a homeless shelter while seeking help at a B.C. hospital with serious symptoms underscores the need to address anti-Indigenous racism, advocates say.

Courtesy of family

The treatment of an Indigenous military corporal who was directed to a homeless shelter while seeking help at a B.C. hospital with serious symptoms underscores the need to address anti-Indigenous racism, advocates say.

The case involves 23-year-old Corporal Connor Sutton, whose family says he went to a Duncan, B.C., hospital suffering from chest pains, vomiting, speech and breathing issues, and severe confusion. Cpl. Sutton’s mother has said publicly that he was diagnosed with a hole in his esophagus on a first trip to the hospital but that staff told him to seek out a homeless shelter when he went there a second time.

Indigenous advocates have decried how Cpl. Sutton’s case was handled.

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“Instead of concern, empathy, and care, he was met with callousness and discrimination: The hospital staff refused to help or treat him and told him to go to a homeless shelter before reportedly physically assaulting him,” the First Nations Leadership Council said in a statement.

Cpl. Sutton was later admitted to the Royal Jubilee Hospital in Victoria and held in the psychiatric ward for a month, family added, saying that he was “languishing in the hospital.”

In a statement to The Globe and Mail this week, Island Health, also known as the Vancouver Island Health Authority, confirmed that Cpl. Sutton has been discharged from Royal Jubilee.

Chief Don Tom, the vice-president of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs, said he has spoken with Cpl. Sutton’s mother about the release of her son. He said the case highlights the need to address systemic racism in health care before an Indigenous person dies as a result of not receiving adequate care at hospitals.

“I am thankful that [Cpl. Sutton’s case] wasn’t fatal,” he said in an interview.

“Next time, the individual may not be as healthy as Connor is. It is a risk and it is a legitimate concern.”

Robert Phillips of the First Nations Summit Political Executive also said that Cpl. Sutton’s case is “horrendous” and that he was profiled and viewed as homeless and intoxicated while at the Duncan hospital.

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“This is another example, I’ll just put it bluntly, of racism in the health care system,” Mr. Phillips said.

“Instead of getting the care and attention and especially the treatment Connor required, he was institutionalized and held in a ward.”

Island Health’s president and chief executive Kathy MacNeil said in a statement the health authority recognizes that “systemic anti-Indigenous racism occurs.”

“I want our patients and communities to know we are taking action, and our response is being led and guided by Indigenous leaders and communities to ensure our actions are meaningful,” she said.

A day after a rally was held outside of Royal Jubilee Hospital to shine a light on Cpl. Sutton’s case, Ms. MacNeil met with his mother. That July 22 meeting was intended to listen and learn from her experience and that of her son, Ms. MacNeil said.

“Those conversations are ongoing and we remain committed to take action based on our learnings of their experience,” she said.

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“We are also conducting a quality review of Connor’s care experience and will be acting on the findings of that process. We understand Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond will also review the concerns raised and we are committed to supporting her review.”

In June, B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix appointed Prof. Turpel-Lafond of the University of British Columbia’s Peter Allard Hall Law School to lead an independent investigation into allegations of racism in the province’s health care system. Prof. Turpel-Lafond, a member of Muskeg Lake Cree Nation in Saskatchewan, is a former judge and she previously served as B.C.‘s child advocate.

The investigation stems from allegations that doctors and nurses at one hospital were playing a game to guess blood-alcohol levels among Indigenous patients in an emergency room.

In a statement to The Globe, Prof. Turpel-Lafond said that Cpl. Sutton’s case is one she is considering as part of her review.

There are many concerns about the treatment provided to Cpl. Sutton at several hospitals and whether this can happen again, she added.

“The root causes of what occurred are the focus of my current work, and for this family I do hope the trauma they have all experienced is not a barrier to getting the care required now and into the future,” she said.

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The situation involving Cpl. Sutton should concern all Canadians on a number of levels, echoed Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde, adding that he deserved better treatment than to be “shunned, mocked and turned away from a hospital.

“He was recruited to serve this country by the Department of National Defence under its Indigenous Entry Program and reportedly has an exemplary service record,” he said in a statement.

“That alone should have assured him proper medical attention.”

The fact that Cp. Sutton is also a member of the T’Sou-ke Nation raises renewed concerns of rampant racism within B.C.‘s hospitals, he added.

The Department of National Defence said in a statement that the well-being of every member of the Canadian Armed Forces is of primary concern.

The department said that because of the Privacy Act, it could not provide detailed information on this case, but added that it will continue to provide support for the member’s care and treatment.

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