Racism present in every health region, says lead investigator

Eric Plummer, July 9, 2020

Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, independent investigator, provides an update on her investigation into allegations of racist practices in B.C.'s health-care system on July 9 in Victoria. (Province of B.C. photo)

Victoria, BC — 

Today’s update on an investigation into a discriminatory game played in at least one emergency room began with an open admission that racism exists in B.C.’s health care system.

“There are a few themes that are emerging,” said Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, who was appointed by the Ministry of Health to lead the investigation into racism in the health care system. “One is a constant theme where Indigenous people that attend for urgent care are questioned about whether or not they are intoxicated - or whether or not they have addictions - and often minimising the complaints they bring forward based on the allegation that there’s an addiction.”

As a former judge and provincial child advocate, Turpel-Lafond was tasked on June 19 to delve into the presence of racism and discriminatory behavior in hospitals after allegations surfaced of a game being played in at least one emergency room at the expense of patients. During a training session for Indigenous cultural safety this spring it was alleged that emergency room staff had played a game called “The Price is Right”, which entailed guessing the blood-alcohol content of Aboriginal patients who came under their care. It has been reported that this game occurred at the Saanich Peninsula Hospital, a claim that Island Health has neither confirmed or denied.

“There are individual acts that happen when one chooses to play a game about intoxication or to make jokes about individual patients, that’s an individual act,” explained Turpel-Lafond, who is a member of the Muskeg Lake Cree Nation. “But when you have an environment where it’s tolerated and more than one person participates in it - people are bystanders to it and don’t act - that becomes institutional and systemic, and it appears we may have two kinds of situations here.”

During a press conference Turpel-Lafond said that the first few weeks of the investigation revealed that racist behaviour among health care professionals is not limited to one location.

“There are incidents that I have before me in every health region in British Columbia,” she said.

Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council Vice-President Mariah Charleson wasn’t surprised to hear about the alleged emergency room game; she’s witnessed multiple incidents of discrimination in hospitals.

“The surprise was the amount the amount of attention that it got immediately,” she said. “Typically, we hear of these things happening and oftentimes it just gets simply swept under the rug.”

In recent years the West Coast General Hospital has explored ways to better meet the needs of Nuu-chah-nulth patients in Port Alberni, including opening the All Nations Room last October for Indigenous families to gather. But Charleson stressed that systemic changes are needed in the healthcare system to ensure games like this aren’t played again.

“Our people would rather not go and they would rather live without that Western medical health system because of really horrible experiences that have happened in the past,” she said.

She added that for the investigation to make a difference the truth needs to come out, a challenge Turpel-Lafond addressed several times during her update. Real accounts are needed from both Indigenous patients and health care professionals.

“The obstacle that I have is when systems shut down, because they don’t want to talk about it,” she said of gathering input from healthcare workers. “The purpose of this investigation is not to name and shame, but to ensure that this is their opportunity to speak up.”

“We still need to ensure that the investigation is done accordingly and that justice is served,” noted Charleson, “otherwise we are continuously contributing to a culture that you can get away with doing these types of racist acts, and that’s the last thing that we want.”

B.C.’s Indigenous people are encouraged to participate in a survey to help inform Turpel-Lafond’s investigation, which can be accessed at https://engage.gov.bc.ca/addressingracism/.

Anyone with specific experiences regarding racism in the health care system can also share information by calling 1-888-600-3078 or emailing Addressing_Racism@gov.bc.ca.

A preliminary report is expected in the coming months.