Opinion: B.C.'s health-care system has a racism problem

The Black Lives Matter movement has created a global ripple effect of questioning and challenging overt and systemic racism.

In Canada, a nation which espouses a perspective of acceptance and multiculturalism, we are now forced to exploring our own, less-known history of racialization of certain groups, and police violence.

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A recent, horrifying example of institutional racism is the reported "game" that is being played in the ED departments of some facilities in B.C. The racially motivated so-called “Price is Right,” game encouraged doctors and nurses try to guess the blood-alcohol level of Indigenous patients being treated in their hospitals. It is difficult to imagine doctors and nurses, celebrated for their compassionate service during the Covid-19 crisis, playing this cruel game in a place that is supposed to provide healing care. Unfortunately, these dehumanizing practices within certain health workplaces culture is not isolated. Public health care should be designed to serve all in an equitable, compassionate, and ethical way. We have been operating under the false assumption that is has.

As the Covid-19 crisis continues, we cannot let the momentum of the BLM movement and this increase awareness and challenging of the racist structures fade.

As calls for de-funding of police and shifts of mental health crisis work to healthcare professionals rise, we need to demand study of the effects of racism and racialized groups in health care. We cannot deny that racism is also insidious in health care, coming from those supposed to care for the most marginalized and vulnerable.

With increased encouragement to share stories of racialized experiences it has become clear that overt racist healthcare practices and more subtle practices are influenced by the underlying systemic racism firmly embedded in the larger system. We must remember health-care initiatives like the BC Eugenics Act that disproportionately targeted Indigenous people of the province, enacting forced sterilization in the name of public health.

These laws were just repealed in the 1970s. Indigenous people continue to be disproportionately impacted by the health crises like the opiate poisoning and Covid-19 because of social and economic inequity. This insidious racism continues to permeate the healthcare workplace culture in such a way that distorts, ignores, and makes light of certain people’s crises. We cannot move forward to change the system if we cannot acknowledge and dismantle the problematic history of racism in health care. 

There are positive changes happening in this province. In mid-June, the 2021 opening of the Red Fish Healing Centre for Mental Health and Addiction, located on the Coquitlam Riverview Hospital land was announced. There are some clear, deliberate steps to foster collaborative change in the thoughtful naming of this facility.

The purposeful name choice to identify the mental health and substance use services existing within a “healing centre” is powerful. This might seem like a small choice with little impact, but it is a stark departure from the previous labelling of programs with the disorder at the forefront.

Thoughtful naming can decrease stigma and increase understanding of culturally minded, inclusive healing practices that acknowledge integrated healing strategies. The deliberate collaboration with the traditional people of the territory that the centre is built on is an essential step towards more consultation, input, and potentially partnership with the Indigenous people of that area.

Celebrate the positive changes. However, we must also be critical of the less specifically identified healing and treatment strategies such as art, spiritual care, lighting and open views. While these are all good things, they will not in themselves erase the history of a health system and the social injustice of criminalization of people who use substances and racialization of ndigenous people and people of colour.

In the upcoming weeks and months, we will likely learn that the reported actions of health-care workers playing the “Price is Right” game are not isolated nor unusual incidents. We need strategies to call out the overt and subtle racism that permeates throughout the healthcare system. All health-care providers must ask themselves: how can effective change happen when these services exist within the deeply embedded systemic racism? Health-care and policy makers need to devise strategies to change this system to ensure that facilities like the Red Fish Health Centre are not isolated to a few specialized services.

We need to target inclusivity, accessible and anti-racist strategies in all health-care areas.

Michelle Danda, New Westminster




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