Allegations of hospital racism raise concerns for First Nations

Allegations that Saanich Peninsula Hospital was one of the hospitals in which emergency-room staff played a guessing game with Indigenous patients’ blood-alcohol levels have left First Nations questioning if they will get adequate care there, says the MLA for Saanich North and the Islands.

“We have an immediate problem on the Saanich peninsula now that this health facility has been named. This puts vulnerable people at increased vulnerability,” said Adam Olsen, B.C. Green Party interim leader and a member of the Tsartlip First Nation. “People will be making decisions on whether or not to present [to hospital].”

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The hospital was named by CBC News as one of the hospitals involved. Neither the Times Colonist nor Olsen have been able to independently verify the claims.

Health Minister Adrian Dix made the allegations public last week and said, if true, the actions are racist and undermine patient care. Dix appointed former judge and child and youth watchdog Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond to investigate both the specific claims and systemic racism in the health-care system.

Island Health would not confirm whether Saanich Peninsula Hospital is one of the hospitals under investigation.

Health authority CEO Kathy MacNeil said in a statement that she has told all staff that “if this behavior is occurring — whether in an emergency department or any other service area — it must stop immediately.”

“Racist behaviour in any B.C. health-care facility is unacceptable and violates our principles, policies and Island Health’s values of respect and empathy,” MacNeil said.

Olsen said while Turpel-Lafond’s investigation is underway, immediate action must be taken by Island Health to ensure Indigenous people are treated fairly and with respect when they seek medical help.

“When we go and sit with a health-care professional … we’re literally putting our lives in their hands,” Olsen said. “If we don’t have a level of trust in that, that’s really problematic and where else do they turn?”

Island Health is working with Indigenous partners to come up with “actions we can take immediately to reinforce that there is no place for anti-indigenous racism within Island Health,” MacNeil said in her statement.

“We acknowledge we have a lot to learn and understand,” she said. “We are committed to an Indigenous-led response to ensure our actions are meaningful.”

Heather Hastings, health director for the Tsartlip First Nation, agreed with Olsen that Indigenous people might think twice about seeking medical attention if they fear unfair treatment.

“I am concerned about the people who may see this and already recognize it within the system, but now have confirmed that the system is an unsafe space for them and therefore not reach out,” said Hastings, who spent seven years as a Tsartlip community health nurse until 2018, when she took on the role of health director. “It now becomes the burden of Indigenous people to decide: ‘Am I willing to risk being stereotyped or face the judgment of the health-care system? Or do I choose to hesitate to receive the care I need?’ ”

Hastings said she has heard many stories over the years of Indigenous people who receive inadequate care in emergency rooms or are hesitant to visit out of fear of discrimination.

Tsartlip First Nation Chief Don Tom said in a statement that calling the practice of guessing people’s blood alcohol level a “game” minimizes the potential harm to the health of Indigenous peoples.

“We must acknowledge that this is not a game but, in fact, an explicit act of racism,” he said.

Olsen said he recognized the risk of naming one particular hospital and putting all health-care workers under a cloud of suspicion. “There are lots of incredible people that work in all of these institutions and unfortunately the system lets them down and it allows certain behaviours to be normalized,” he said.

Systemic racism in health care and government institutions means the entire system allows problematic behaviour to persist over time without repercussions, Olsen said.

Central Saanich Coun. Niall Paltiel noted that while there is Indigenous representation on Island Health’s board of directors, he would like to see Indigenous representation on the board of the Saanich Peninsula Hospital Foundation.

The allegations were made by a health-care worker who was participating in voluntary Indigenous cultural safety training offered by the Provincial Health Services Authority.

Tsartlip First Nation is calling for mandatory anti-racism and cultural safety training for all staff in the health-care system, a recommendation also made by Métis Nation B.C. and the B.C. Association of Aboriginal Friendship Centres.

Anti-racism training should be seen as a safety issue that’s just as important as CPR training or any other emergency first aid, Hastings said. “If we are not seeing [cultural sensitivity training] as real life-saving measures, that we are training health-care staff to treat people with dignity and respect and we’re creating spaces that are safe, then that’s a problem,” she said.

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