Comment: We must stop racism against Indigenous peoples

The COVID-19 pandemic has magnified difficult truths about how Indigenous peoples are treated in Canadian society and health-care systems.

These truths were starkly described in the recent independent review of racism in B.C.’s health-care system that I was asked to lead by Health Minister Adrian Dix.

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This review described the racial profiling and prejudice experienced by Indigenous peoples at the point of care in all regions of B.C., and how this results in poor health services and negatively impacts their health and wellness outcomes.

The review report was entitled In Plain Sight because this problem is well-known throughout the health-care system, and clearly evident from the data examined.

This problem is also “in plain sight” to all of us witnessing the racism unleashed upon Indigenous communities that — like all of humanity — are grappling with the impacts and outbreaks of the COVID-19 global pandemic.

Racist commentary and abuse have been directed toward Indigenous peoples, who have been wrongly targeted as responsible for transmission of the disease.

This was recently experienced by Snuneymuxw and Cowichan Tribes on Vancouver Island, and similar commentary was seen in the territories of a number of other First Nations communities across B.C.

As clearly demonstrated in one of the review’s findings, this racism is further compounded by systemic discrimination that requires Indigenous communities to fight and advocate for resources, data and acknowledgement of their rights to keep their communities safe in the context of this horrible disease.

Let’s address the facts. Indigenous peoples have traumatic memories of past pandemics — and the survival of these communities demonstrates their resilience, experience and capability.

Indigenous peoples are subject to discriminatory policies and neglectful funding arrangements that create vulnerabilities in their community infrastructure and increase risk of transmission of contagious disease.

Due to generations of colonialism, racism and intergenerational trauma, Indigenous peoples unfairly experience a higher burden of chronic disease, which increases their risk of contracting and dying from COVID-19.

Indigenous peoples require urgent access to the vaccine because of these circumstances. These are truths and decisions grounded in evidence.

Many leaders have been responding appropriately.

At the front lines, we are witnessing important rebuilding of the relationships needed between Nations and health authorities, including the First Nations Health Authority, to roll out better pandemic response and health-care change.

Local and provincial government leaders and health-care leaders have been speaking out against racism, and standing up for the importance of respectful care, treatment and response to the pandemic for Indigenous peoples in B.C. Minister Dix and his colleagues have accepted the review and initiated serious efforts to address racism, improve access and quality of care and ensure there is cultural safety for Indigenous peoples.

While many of these matters rest with the role of government and the health-care system, we all have a responsibility to actively be anti-racist.

Racism is incompatible with our common values espoused by Dr. Bonnie Henry of being calm, kind and safe.

What measures can each of us take to be anti-racist, and be allies to Indigenous peoples?

It is necessary to be educated about the conditions that Indigenous peoples have faced, not of their own making, which have caused such intense vulnerability to this pandemic.

We must use our voices and our privilege to shut down hateful, targeted behaviour or commentary in plain sight and grounded in ignorance, racism or denial of the truth.

The burden of addressing racism must come off the ­shoulders of Indigenous peoples and Indigenous leaders such as Chief Mike Wyse and Chief Chip Seymour.

To end racism, we have to name it, speak up and shut it down — calmly, with kindness, and with the goal of creating safety for all.

All of us as British Columbians need to take active measures to identify and remove racism in our society and all public services.

We must stand together for respectful treatment of Indigenous peoples and Nations, long overdue and unquestionably demonstrated to be a pressing priority.

We ask you to shut down anti-Indigenous racism wherever it appears, and remind people that to be calm, kind and safe includes ending this kind of ­commentary and targeting of Indigenous peoples.

Law professor Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond (Aki-Kwe) is director of the Residential School History and Dialogue Centre at the University of British Columbia.

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