Opinion: Indigenous women know there is systemic racism in health care

Lorraine Whitman: The abusive treatment suffered by Joyce Echaquan horrified but did not surprise us.

Lorraine Whitman October 9, 2020

Joyce Echaquan, a 37-year-old Atikamekw woman and mother, videoed the treatment she received shortly before her death in a Joliette Hospital. Courtesy of Karine Echaquan / POSTMEDIA/FILE

Racism in the health-care system can be evil and even fatal.

It was with horror that Indigenous women across this country listened to the recorded cries of Joyce Echaquan as she lay dying in a hospital bed in Joliette, Que.

It was with disgust that we heard a nurse utter racial slurs rather than come to the aid of the 37-year-old Atikamekw mother of seven.

But this incident is exceptional only because Ms. Echaquan had the foresight and the means to capture her deathbed agony on video.

Indigenous women know there is systemic racism in health care.

It is prevalent to the point that many of us are reluctant to seek treatment until we have no other option. And, as we have seen in this case, it is not always unintentional. Rather it is targeted, cruel and degrading.

For that reason, Joyce Echaquan’s death must be understood as part of the greater tragedy of missing and murdered Indigenous women.

As set out in the final report last year of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, the root causes of systemic discrimination are based in colonialism. Its lingering harmful effects are complex, intertwined and deeply entrenched in diverse systems, including economic, political, social and medical.

I am not saying all health-care workers are racist. I was a health-care worker and I know that the vast majority of doctors, nurses and other health professionals are compassionate people who are deeply committed to the task of caring for their patients, regardless of race.

But it would be difficult to find an Indigenous person in Canada who cannot recount a story about mistreatment and discrimination in the health system. Let me tell you one of mine.

When I was 15, my brother, Lester, was stabbed. He went to the hospital where they dressed his wound with a Band-Aid and sent him on his way. But the knife had nicked an artery. So, months later, he was taken away by ambulance. And that was the last time I saw my brother alive. He died in hospital under circumstances my family did not fully understand.

Twenty years later, my sister and I were catching a flight to Ottawa from Halifax and we sat beside a woman who, during the course of a long conversation, explained that she was a trained nurse but had quit the profession two decades earlier.

She said she had been in an operating room where medical staff were preparing to repair the artery of a young Indigenous man who had been hurt in a knifefight. They had already made the first cuts when a local, non-Indigenous dignitary arrived in the emergency room with injuries to his arm.

The dignitary was a personal friend of the doctor who was operating on the Indigenous man and insisted that that doctor be the one to provide his treatment.

The nurse said she was told to roll the Indigenous man off the operating room while the dignitary’s arm was being repaired. When the doctor returned to perform surgery on his Indigenous patient, the patient went into cardiac arrest and died.

The nurse said she was so traumatized by the incident, she resigned her job. She did not know the name of the Indigenous man. Too many years had passed. But, the date on which this happened coincided with the date that Lester died.

Now, we don’t know for certain that it was our brother who was in the operating room that day. But that man was someone’s brother, or father or son.

And this story would be unbelievable if we, as Indigenous People, had not been repeated witnesses to similar events, if we had not heard the racism directed at Joyce Echaquan.

I forgave the nurse who wheeled that Indigenous man out of the operating theatre. I do not forgive the fact that the life expectancy of Indigenous people is significantly shorter than that of non-Indigenous people, or that children on reserves die of diseases readily treatable anywhere else in Canada.

I do not forgive a health-care system that leaves Indigenous people vulnerable to racism.

Lorraine Whitman is president of the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC).

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