A brief history of medical racism in Canada

How the healthcare sector has repeatedly failed Indigenous people

Content warning: This story contains some elements of racism and abuse, which some readers may find disturbing

Though the topic of anti-Indigenous racism in Canada has regained some public attention since the beginning of the Black Lives Matter protests this summer, nothing has served as a more vivid reminder of this reality than the recent death of Joyce Echaquan and Georges-Hervé Awashish.

Hospitalized for stomach pains, Echaquan, an Atikamekw woman livestreamed the abuse she experienced by the medical staff whose care she was under, as she screamed for help and pleaded that she was being given too much morphine. She passed later that evening, after spending two days in the hospital, leaving her husband with the care of their seven children. Awashish, an Atikamekw man from Obedjiwan, did not receive the same spotlight from the public, but his treatment was just as poor. The circumstances of his passing are still being investigated.

As protesters decried the deeply entrenched problem of racism in the medical industry, specifically when it comes to the care of First Nations peoples, Premier François Legault’s reaction and apology sparked controversy when he didn’t directly address the systemic nature of racism in our province, with many recalling his denial of it over the summer.

We know this is false. And the fact that Legault used to be our province’s Minister of Health makes this belief all the more alarming.

Articles revealing the absurd statistics about racial bias in our medical system are not scarce. A 2017 report confirmed a five-to-seven year gap between the life expectancies of Indigenous and non-Indigenous people, as well as an infant mortality rate 1.5 times higher for Indigenous populations. These numbers barely touch the surface of the issue; among these communities, studies have recorded higher rates of HIV/AIDS, diabetes, tuberculosis, depression and anxiety, substance abuse, and deaths from accidental or preventable conditions.

Studies about the disenfranchisement of Indigenous people in the medical industry point to disproportionately inaccessible and underfunded services, deficient education and data collection systems, and failure to consider cultural barriers as the main culprits.

But the government isn’t the only authoritative body to have failed Indigenous people; so have medical practitioners themselves. Other than the victims of doctors and nurses’ individual discrimination, who have turned into statistics and archived stories in the public’s eyes, genetics-based medical research has also often proven to uphold or be rooted in racial biases.

In 1962, geneticist James V. Neel formulated what he called the “thrifty gene hypothesis” — a supposed genetic explanation for Indigenous people’s higher tendency to be affected by diabetes and obesity.

In 2020, this hypothesis still has yet to be confirmed, and many experts have flagged it as a lazy excuse to shrug off responsibility for the type II diabetes epidemic currently plaguing First Nations communities.

The emphasis on genetics has repeatedly served this purpose. During the H1N1 pandemic, researchers were quick to suspect a correlation between the exponential rates at which the virus spread in Indigenous communities as a genetic predisposition. This meant relieving some of society’s accountability for the long-standing socio-economic circumstances that have led to higher chances of transmission and greater risk for medical complications — circumstances which have re-emerged in the age of COVID-19.

And let’s not forget the healthcare workers who took the practice of eugenics into their own hands for decades and performed forced, irreversible sterilization procedures on over a thousand Indigenous women. Shielded from legal repercussions by proclaiming these women were “mentally defective,” overly promiscuous, or alcoholics, practitioners were allowed to continue these operations until 2018, as far as we know.

The indictments of these practices as a form of genocide can hardly be called controversial. And those who choose to fool themselves into thinking that we aren’t a racist province are those who will continue to vote for a leadership whose agenda purposely excludes Indigenous rights and issues. I wonder how Premier Legault has managed to convince himself that these blatant acts of racism aren’t systemic. Crying ignorance to these issues is unacceptable; in 2020, it’s become irresponsible not to know.

 

Feature graphic by @the.beta.lab

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“Justice for Joyce” protestors march against systemic racism

Thousands march through downtown Montreal, calling for more accountability from the government

 

Thousands of protestors gathered on Saturday to demand action against systemic racism in Quebec after an Atikamekw woman, Joyce Echaquan, died at Joliette Hospital where she was racially abused by staff.

Mask-wearing demonstrators packed Place Émilie-Gamelin with drums, Indigenous flags and “Justice for Joyce” signs. Many were on bicycles, others pushed baby strollers. Protestors shuffled toward the speakers, all the while attempting to maintain a two-metre distance from each other.

The multilingual demonstration began with a prayer for Joyce. Buffalo Hat Singers were followed with a drum-pounding performance. Chiefs, local politicians, and Indigenous activists took to the stage to denounce the denial of systemic racism in Quebec public institutions and to call for a criminal investigation into the case of Joyce Echaquan’s death.

Cheers and chants of “justice for Joyce” punctuated remarks.

“I have spent the last few days wondering, am I next?” said one Indigenous speaker, fighting back tears. “Who’s next? I’m tired of hearing about intentions. We don’t want intentions!”

Manon Massé, co-leader of Québec solidaire, urged Premier Legault to engage with First Nations communities more respectfully and to put into practice the 142 calls to action listed in the Jacques Viens report, which in 2019 concluded that Indigenous people face systemic discrimination when trying to access public services in Quebec.

On whether political parties are working together in the National Assembly to address the issue of systemic racism, Massé told The Concordian that “The CAQ and the PQ don’t recognize that there is systemic racism [in] Quebec, [in] our institutions,” but she insisted that she is willing to work with other parties to advance change.

Jessica Quijano, who works at the Iskweu project and the Native Women’s Shelter of Montreal said that the Indigenous community needs its own health centre.

“First Nations people often don’t seek medical attention because of systemic racism.”

However, she saw positives in the protest turnout.

“I think it’s hopeful to have this many people, but I always say that protests are dress rehearsals for what’s really to come.”

Jennifer Maccarone, the Liberal Member of the National Assembly (MNA) for Westmount–Saint Louis, had strong words for Premier Legault.

“I think he’s completely disconnected from the community he represents.”

She accused the CAQ of doing little to address racism in the province and acting without transparency.

“Joyce deserved nothing less than proper health care and respect,” she told The Concordian.

“You have to change the way people think,” Gregory Kelley told The Concordian, the Liberal MNA for Jacques-Cartier. He called for Quebec’s educational curriculum “to have more Indigenous content so people understand better who the Indigenous peoples of Quebec are and what are the challenges they face.”

The demonstrators observed a moment of silence for Joyce, then marched from Émilie-Gamelin toward René-Lévesque Boulevard and stopped at the Quartier des Spectacles. One nurse and one orderly have been fired from the Joliette Hospital, and three investigations have been launched. A GoFundMe page has been created for the family, and the Echaquan family is filing a lawsuit against the hospital.

Photograph courtesy of Joe Bongiorno

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