Health care system was designed to subject Indigenous people to systemic racism: Hajdu

The systemic racism endured by Indigenous people in Canada’s health care system exists because the system was designed that way, Health Minister Patty Hajdu said today after a meeting with representatives from the provinces, Indigenous groups and the health care sector.

“Sadly this is not shocking to me,” Hajdu said. “Racism is not an accident. The system is not broken. It was created this way. And the people in the system are incentivized to stay the same.”

Hajdu made the comments after attending a meeting with Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller, Northern Affairs Minister Daniel Vandal and Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett to discuss racism in Canada’s health care system.

The meeting with some 400 participants from across the country was called following the death of Indigenous mother of seven Joyce Echaquan, who died in a Quebec hospital last month.

Echaquan, 37, recorded some of the last moments of her life on a video later released on Facebook. The video captured Echaquan screaming in distress, along with the voices of staff members making degrading comments, calling her stupid and saying she would be better off dead.

“It’s always a very powerful experience to be trusted to hear these very personal experiences and there’s so much to reflect on. I have a deep gratitude for all speakers who shared fearlessly about their personal experiences of racism in the health care system and in the health care education process,” Hajdu said.

Those who attended today’s meeting will reconvene in January, when they are expected to bring “concrete plans for training, prevention, health care data, wraparound services and accountability,” Hajdu said.

Miller said that while the responsibility for delivering health care to Indigenous Canadians is shared between the federal and provincial governments, systemic reform should not happen without Indigenous leaders playing a key role in shaping the process. 

While widespread reforms likely will have to wait until after the January meeting, Miller said that things can be done right away to improve the system for Indigenous patients, such as requiring greater accountability from health care providers and introducing better sensitivity training. 

Federal and provincial responsibilities

“It is time for all of us, regardless of our jurisdiction, to step up and use the power that each of us has to insist that systemic violence of Indigenous peoples end,” Hajdu said. 

Miller said that federal investments in health care have to respect provincial jurisdiction.

“The reality is that health is a jurisdiction that is jealously guarded by provinces,” he said. “We need their help to reform it. We cannot reform the licensing bodies. We do not have the power, the Supreme Court has said it clearly in black and white.”

Systemic racism

Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde said the meeting — which he described as a listening session — left those who took part with no doubts about the scope of the problem. 

“There is systemic racism, there is systemic discrimination. let’s deal with it, let’s put an action plan in place so that it no longer persists in 2020 and beyond, because we’re all in this together,” he said.

“Nobody should be afraid to go into that system because of racism or discrimination or they’re gonna be treated differently, and we need to feel good about getting the proper healthcare, each and every one of us.”

“It was not an isolated incident,” Hajdu said. “It is not a few bad apples. It is a system that not just turns a blind eye but implicitly endorses and reinforces this behaviour many times over. And Joyce in the middle of her deep pain showed something that so many people would prefer to ignore. So she gave Canada a gift that has to be honoured no matter how difficult it is to receive it.

“We as leaders cannot let her gift of bravery go to waste.”

Watch: Quebec launches inquiry into Joyce Echaquan’s death:

Canada’s Indigenous services minister says the federal government will meet with Indigenous leaders to talk about racism in the health-care system after an Indigenous woman recorded nurses insulting her before her death in a Quebec hospital last month. 2:05

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau suggested today that the government could introduce specific Indigenous health care legislation.

“All premiers have condemned racism and there is still more work to do, obviously. But we are confident that we’ll be able to make significant improvements in the health care access by Indigenous peoples,” he told a news conference in Ottawa.

“As we did with the question of child and family services, we will be sitting down in partnership with Indigenous communities and Indigenous leaders to help design the principles that should underline better health outcomes and services for Indigenous peoples.”

The provinces are seeking billions more dollars in health transfers from the federal government, with Trudeau promising a first ministers conference on the subject soon.

On Thursday, Miller said the federal government is ready to use its financial leverage over the health system to fight anti-Indigenous racism in health care, but ruled out holding back federal transfers as a tactic to ensure that happens.

Miller said he doesn’t think it’s helpful to try to punish provinces for inadequate action on racism, especially in the middle of a pandemic, but the federal government has a moral duty to set and maintain standards.

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