Military member victim of anti-Indigenous racism in hospital, First Nations council says

A member of the military who was turned away from a Duncan hospital despite serious medical symptoms, and was later committed to a psychiatric ward in Victoria, is a victim of anti-Indigenous racism, according to the First Nations Leadership Council.

The council is calling on Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, who is leading an independent investigation into anti-Indigenous racism in B.C.’s health-care system, to include the case of Cpl. Connor Sutton, 23, of the T’Sou-ke Nation.

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Sutton, who joined the military through the Indigenous entry program, held excellent standing for 41Ú2 years, said the council.

The council said Sutton sought aid at a hospital in Duncan after suffering a hole in his esophagus that led to chest pains, vomiting, speech and breathing difficulties, and severe confusion.

“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 council said in a statement.

Sutton has been in the psychiatric ward of Royal Jubilee Hospital in Victoria for the past month, the council said, suggesting it could take months before his case is reviewed.

“A young man, hurt and confused, walks into a hospital expecting help,” said Robert Phillips of the First Nations Summit Political Executive. “He is instantly racially profiled and is viewed as a homeless, intoxicated threat, not worthy of care and respect.”

The concerns were brought to the council on Tuesday, Phillips said in an phone interview.

Sutton’s “horrendous” treatment by hospital staff is “not unique in its prevalence and commonality,” he said.

Turpel-Lafond is investigating reports that doctors and emergency-room staff across the province played a game in which they would guess the blood-alcohol levels of Indigenous patients.

“It’s just another thing that adds to the storyline here,” said Phillips, “and we do believe it’s a crisis mode.”

Kathy MacNeil, president and CEO of Island Health, said the health authority has acknowledged systemic anti-indigenous racism occurs within its region.

“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,” MacNeil said in a statement.

On Wednesday, MacNeil and Dawn Thomas, the health authority’s executive lead for Indigenous health, met with Sutton’s mother.

“Dawn and I committed to follow up on her requests and concerns — both to support Connor’s health and care needs going forward and to take actions based on our learnings of their experience to date,” said MacNeil. “We will continue our conversations with Connor’s family, and with Indigenous leaders and communities, as we build out and implement further actions to address anti-indigenous racism.”

Regional Chief Terry Teegee of the B.C. Assembly of First Nations called on Turpel-Lafond to include the allegations about Sutton in her investigation.

In a statement, Turpel-Lafond said she is aware of the case of the young T’Sou-ke Nation member, which helped spur a protest on Tuesday at Victoria’s Royal Jubilee Hospital.

Turpel-Lafond said her team is reviewing the case and determining the facts as part of its investigation into Indigenous-specific discrimination in B.C. health care.

“We have had communication with both the family of this young man and legal counsel representing him,” she said. “Our foremost concern at this point is for the health, safety and well-being of this young man and his family.”

Allegations of anti-Indigenous racism in health-care facilities in B.C. have been condemned by Premier John Horgan and Health Minister Adrian Dix.

Phillips acknowledged the government’s swift action on the file and said he has faith that Turpel-Lafond will get to the bottom of it, but added that anti-Indigenous racism is “all over the place” — from policing to hospitals to corrections.

“What happened to these Indigenous patients and what happened to Connor is unacceptable and proof that the institutions and structures governing our society are still perpetuating colonial and racist values that oppress and damage Indigenous lives,” Phillips said.

Chief Don Tom, vice-president of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, said for Sutton to be “held in the psych ward, with the immense physical, emotional, and mental trauma he is experiencing, and with there being no proper diagnosis of his condition, is cruel and appalling.”

The First Nations Leadership Council is calling on the relevant health authorities and service providers to end discriminatory conduct, and asking the Canadian Armed Forces to intervene when one of its own is affected by anti-Indigenous racism.

“He served his time in the military,” said Phillips. “We’re kind of surprised — usually if something happens like that, the military would be backing them up as much as possible.”

ceharnett@timescolonist.com

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