The healthcare system’s treatment of Indigenous people needs to change

News Unsettled Opinions

Indigenous people face constant violence in interactions with the healthcare system

News Unsettled Native Students Union column
Graphic provided by the Native Students Union.

This article discusses racism in the healthcare system, including deaths and harmful surgical procedures. Readers should be advised. 

Healthcare is a service that everyone in Canada will use at one point in their lives or another. Something that has been clear about healthcare in Canada for a long time is that it is, among many other services and institutions, an extremely unsafe place for Indigenous peoples. Indigenous peoples are constantly forced to contend with hostile staff, inadequate treatment, racism, and the lack of being taken seriously, even in the direst of situations.

The case of Joyce Echaquan proves how deadly this environment can be for Indigenous people. Joyce went to the Joliette hospital outside of Montréal on September 26, 2020, due to intense stomach pains. Two days later she was given morphine and physically restrained to the bed, even after telling hospital staff that she could not handle the drug and could not handle the amount that they were giving her. Joyce, a mother of five children, began to livestream herself on Facebook. As she cried out for help in her Atikamekw language, multiple staff at the hospital degraded and humiliated Joyce to the other’s present and to her. Due to the despicable nature of the comments made, they will not be repeated here. Joyce passed away, and her family is now pursuing legal action. This is not only an experience in Quebec. It is common throughout Canada —from the east all the way to the west.

As recent as 2018 and 2019, there have been reports of Indigenous women that have been coerced into sterilizations. This is not only in one place, but almost every province and territory. There are a higher number of cases in Saskatchewan and Winnipeg, where there is high-density Indigenous populations. In Northern communities, where Indigenous peoples are a majority of the population, there continues to be reports and records of forced sterilizations. These women are often coerced by doctors directly after they give birth. In an article for the CBC, a 17-year-old women said a Children’s Aid worker threatened to take her child away from her if she didn’t go through with the procedure. This procedure and threat has also been used when doctors are trying to convince these women of abortion.

Hospitals on Vancouver Island recently had their own share of coverage after a racist activity was brought to light at a hospital in Victoria. Hospital staff would make bets on the blood-alcohol content of Indigenous patients. A large number of doctors and nurses were involved and would pitch in for prizes for those who got close to the number, if there was one.

A student at the University of Victoria, Yvonne Houssin, shared an experience with the CBC in June regarding a hospital in Port Alberni. In 2018, Houssin went to the Port Alberni hospital with what she was certain was food poisoning. In her recollection of the incident, she shares that hospital staff grew aggressive in the waiting room and began demanding what drugs she was on and how much she had had to drink. She was targeted specifically as an Indigenous person, as there were many other people in the hospital with heat stroke that were not bothered at all.

Colonialism and racism are a disease that runs deep in the minds of people in Canada. This mindset exists in almost every institution and service, but it is especially dangerous in healthcare. By assuming that all Indigenous people are on drugs or intoxicated, and not listening to Indigenous peoples when they have health concerns or know their own medical state there exists a huge barrier in receiving adequate care.

As can be seen in the case of Joyce Echaquan. The staff at the hospital did not take her health concern seriously and did not listen when she told them she could not handle the amount of morphine they were giving her.

The staff in Port Alberni assumed that Yvonne Houssin was intoxicated and under the influence of drugs, rather than assuming she was also struggling with heatstroke like so many other patients.

The healthcare system in this country is allowing for genocide to take place as recent as 2019. Doctors and nurses are making the decision to prevent the next generation from being born. Because of their own racism, preventing our languages and cultures from being passed on and completely altering the bodies of Indigenous women without the proper procedures or consent.

There needs to be a significant change within healthcare. Indigenous peoples need to be able to rely on one institution in Canada where we are not targeted, and where we do not have to worry about dying due to someone’s bigotry and their wrong and outdated stereotypes.

No number of apologies, like the one issued by Quebec Premier Francois Legault, or amount of “outrage”, like that of Premier John Horgan, can fix the racism and harm that is being inflicted upon Indigenous people in healthcare.