The federal government is developing new legislation to combat anti-Indigenous racism in health care and give Indigenous communities greater say over how their health care is delivered.
Minister of Indigenous Services Marc Miller announced Thursday that the federal government will co-develop the legislation alongside Indigenous leaders and look for “concrete steps” to fight racism that includes giving Indigenous communities the ability to develop and deliver health services.
“This also means greater representation of Indigenous peoples in the health-care field, anti-racism training for health-care physicians and improvements to ensure culturally competent care,” Miller said during a press conference.
Advocates say racism has deep roots in Canadian health care delivery, and a series of recent incidents have highlighted the problem.
Last fall, video emerged of Joyce Echaquan, an Indigenous woman in Quebec, being insulted by health-care workers while she pleaded for help in her hospital bed. Two female staff can be heard on the video calling Echaquan stupid and saying she’d be better off dead.
Echaquan later died. Her family has said they believe systemic racism played a role in her death.
In B.C., a pregnant Indigenous woman in labour was allegedly turned away from hospital and told to travel to another hospital 65 kilometres away. When the baby was finally delivered, it was a stillborn.
Indigenous advocate Sheila North says her family understands the problem first-hand. North’s mother went to a doctor in Manitoba because she was having difficulty standing up due to cellulitis in her leg. The doctor assumed her mother was drunk.
“One of the comments was, ‘You can’t drink while you have diabetes,’ and I can say with 100 per cent certainty my mother has never drank a drop of alcohol in her entire life,” North told CTV News.
The federal government set aside $15.6 million in the fall budget specifically for the new legislation. Two meetings have already been held between government officials, Indigenous leaders and health experts on the subject, including a meeting last week.
Speaking with CTV’s Power Play, Miller said Ottawa has faced a “jurisdictional minefield” in the past because provinces are in charge of delivering health care. Even so, he said the federal government has the power to provide resources to address the issue.
“Responsibility falls squarely with provinces and territories, but also with the federal government as it deploys its assets into communities in a more respectful way,” he said.
Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde lauded the decision.
“I think it’s another opportunity to look at fixing a health-care system that’s broken when it comes to First Nations people,” he said.
But Indigenous health advocate Dr. James Makokis said any lasting solution needs to look beyond health care.
“For me, I don’t see how this legislation deals with the systemic, provincial and territorial health system racist incidents that people continue to experience,” he said.
In British Columbia, steps are already underway to reform the health-care system after a recent report found that 84 per cent of Indigenous participants said they had faced discrimination. The review was launched after allegations of emergency staff in B.C. playing a game in which they guessed the blood-alcohol level of Indigenous patients.
A report released Thursday found that Indigenous people in B.C. have less access to primary care doctors, less access to primary care providers for seniors and lower rates of cancer screening than non-Indigenous British Columbians.
B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix said the province is responding by creating an Indigenous health officer and an associate deputy minister of Indigenous health, among other recommendations in the report.
“Systemic racism requires systemic action,” Dix said.
During the COVID-19 vaccine rollout, the federal government prioritized Indigenous communities to receive some of the country’s first doses. The goal is for three-quarters of all remote and northern Indigenous communities to receive the vaccine by the end of March — a benchmark Miller says the government is on track to achieve.
Indigenous communities were prioritized early on in the pandemic because many live in remote areas where health-care access is limited. The National Advisory Committee on Immunization advised that adults in Indigenous communities, residents and staff of long-term care homes, adults 70 years or older and front-line health-care workers receive the vaccine first.
According to the latest figures, the number of active cases of COVID-19 in First Nations communities has dropped to its lowest point in nearly two months, with 1,869 active cases reported as of Wednesday.
With files from The Canadian Press