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Systemic racism in health must be confronted and not swept under the carpet, the chief medical officer of public health for Indigenous Services Canada said Wednesday.

While speaking at a news conference in Ottawa, Tom Wong said the country must get rid of any biases and discriminatory practices in health care.

“We cannot tolerate second-class citizens in this country,” he said. “If we do that, how many lives are we going to be losing?”

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Dr. Wong made his comments after a nurse, who works at a Quebec hospital where Joyce Echaquan died, told a coroner’s inquest there is a perception that Indigenous people are alcoholics or drug addicts. The inquest is examining the death of Ms. Echaquan, a 37-year-old mother of seven from the Atikamekw nation of Manawan who captured on video her cries for help in the hospital and the abuse she endured before her death.

During the video Ms. Echaquan posted, at least 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. What are your children going to think, seeing you like this, eh?”

After its release, the video immediately drew condemnation across the country, including from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who said Canadians were shocked to see what happened. He called it another example of systemic racism.

There must be zero tolerance for the matter in the health care system, Dr. Wong said.

“Can you imagine the individual who is so vulnerable coming to actually seek help in a clinic, in a hospital, and what do they get? A worse outcome because of their race,” he said. “It is not acceptable.”

Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller said Wednesday that systemic racism in health is happening across Canada, adding it is underreported despite the research conducted by former judge Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond in British Columbia.

In November, Prof. Turpel-Lafond released a report entitled In Plain Sight on B.C.’s health care system. The report called its findings disturbing.

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“Through listening to thousands of voices – via survey results, direct submissions, health care data and interviews with Indigenous people who have been impacted by the health system, health care practitioners and leaders – a picture is presented of a B.C. health care system with widespread systemic racism against Indigenous peoples,” the report said.

“This racism results in a range of negative impacts, harm and even death. The review also found that this widespread racism has long been known by many within the health care system, including those in positions of authority, and is widely acknowledged by many who work in the system.”

Since Ms. Echaquan’s death, Ottawa has also convened meetings on systemic racism in health that included Indigenous health experts, as well as provincial partners. Although Ottawa funds and sets standards for health care, provinces and territories deliver most of the services across the country.

Mr. Miller said Wednesday there are Indigenous people who refuse to seek treatment in the medical system because of apprehension about how they will be treated. “I think what is most painful is it is normalized,” he said. “It’s not a theoretical discussion.”

With a report from The Canadian Press

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