VICTORIA — A former judge says she found widespread systemic racism in British Columbia's health-care system where extensive negative profiling of Indigenous patients affects treatment and care.
Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond said Monday she could not confirm allegations of an organized game to guess the blood-alcohol level of Indigenous patients in B.C. emergency departments, but found extensive harmful profiling of patients based on stereotypes about addictions and parenting.
The former Saskatchewan provincial court judge and one-time children's advocate in B.C. was appointed by Health Minister Adrian Dix in June to investigate the guessing-game allegations and conduct a broader examination of Indigenous racism in provincial health care.
"Indigenous people consistently told us, and this was confirmed by the health-care workers who responded and the cases, that they are subjected to negative assumptions, negative assumptions based on prejudice, based on racism, based on beliefs that should not exist in our health-care system," Turpel-Lafond said at a news conference.
She said 84 per cent of the review's Indigenous respondents reported some form of discrimination in health care and 52 per cent of Indigenous health-care workers said they experienced racial prejudice at work, mostly in the form of comments.
"Among the top negative assumptions that are circulating in our health-care system today is that Indigenous patients and people are less worthy," Turpel-Lafond said. "That they are alcoholics. That they're drug seeking."
These negative assumptions lead to the denial and delay of patient services, and cause some people to stay away from hospitals to avoid further incidents of discriminatory treatment, she said.
Indigenous people told the review they feared hospitals and would rather face uncertain health than return to get care, said Turpel-Lafond.
The review heard from nearly 9,000 Indigenous patients, family members, third-party witnesses and health-care workers. It also examined the health-care data of about 185,000 First Nations and Metis patients.
Turpel-Lafond's report makes 24 recommendations. They include bringing in measures and legislation to change behaviour and the appointment of three new positions to focus on the problem, including an Indigenous health officer and an associate deputy minister of Indigenous health.
The report also said the government should work with Indigenous organizations to improve the patient complaint processes to address individual and systemic racism specifically experienced by Indigenous people, as well as create a new school of Indigenous medicine at the University of British Columbia.
Dix said B.C. will work to implement the recommendations and the review's findings will be felt across the country.
"Racism is toxic for people and it's toxic for care," he said. "I want to make an unequivocal apology as the minister of health to those who have experienced racism in accessing health-care services in B.C., now and in the past."
The First Nations Leadership Council, comprising several B.C. Indigenous organizations and Metis Nation B.C., called on the government to act.
"These are the voices of our families and our relatives and they have to be heard," Grand Chief Stewart Phillip of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs said in a statement. "They can no longer be silenced by a narrative of indifference and negligence and a culture of low expectations."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 30, 2020.
Dirk Meissner, The Canadian Press