Racism in B.C.’s Healthcare System

Written by MLA Adam Olsen, Saanich North and the Islands

This summer, in the midst of a global pandemic, allegations were made that healthcare professionals in a local emergency room had a “game” where they were guessing the blood-alcohol level of Indigenous people who presented themselves for care. The Saanich Peninsula Hospital was later identified by the media as a facility at the centre of the allegations.

Minister of Health Adrian Dix acted immediately. He appointed former judge and Child and Youth Advocate Mary-Ellen Turpel Lafond to get to the bottom of it. Turpel-Lafond has spent the past three months investigating racism in the healthcare system. She heard thousands of personal accounts from Indigenous people about their experiences.

Frankly, these allegations came as no surprise to Indigenous people. We are aware of the racism in our society, and we are reminded about it every day.

Turpel-Lafond released the report of her investigation earlier this week. We have heard the words of contrition from Minister Dix but the actions of reconciliation should start with meaningful validation.

To start government must acknowledge that we cannot address “systemic” racism one government Ministry and institution at a time. Systemic racism is systemic, and to properly address it requires the Premier, Ministers and the public service to take an all-of-government approach. From the top to the bottom.

In addition the Premier and his Cabinet must be able to publicly name it. They must admit that racism exists in the systems they have inherited, and they have to simply state that they believe the survivors when they share their stories recounting these awful experiences.

These are critical steps toward true and meaningful reconciliation and anything less is unacceptable.

There has been an inclination to celebrate the response of Minister Dix when he heard these allegations. It is true that he acted quickly to appoint Turpel-Lafond. It’s true that he gave Turpel-Lafond an authority to dig deeply into the issue. I raise my hands in gratitude for his response.

However, celebration of the response must be measured against the context that none of these experiences are new, and many leaders within the healthcare system (indeed all government systems) readily admit to have known about systemic racism for years and did nothing about it, only choosing to act when these allegations came to light. And even after these allegations became public and the news became widespread across the Province, Indigenous people continued to encounter racism when they sought care.

This investigation was not a voluntary act from a proactive government. Rather, it was a desperate response to an embarrassing situation.

We have seen government respond to allegations in policing by creating an all-party committee to review the Police Act. They appoint a powerful advocate to dig into allegations of racism in healthcare. Both are laudable. However, these are reactive responses and they have not yet willingly investigated the extent of racism in other Ministries like education or other government institutions like the public service. Although I am glad to see that Equity and Anti-Racism are a part of the foundational principles that make up every Minister and Parliamentary Secretary’s mandate, only three Ministers and one Parliamentary Secretary have specific anti-racism items in their mandate. To truly commit to dismantling systemic racism throughout all of our institutions, there must be direct, specific and actionable items in every mandate, with timelines to ensure accountability.

Recognizing that the government acts only when they are embarrassed, we need to ensure Indigenous people can share their experiences as they did in Turpel-Lafond’s investigation.

So, we have made progress but we still have a long way to go. How far is the B.C. NDP government willing to go without having to be pushed, pulled or embarrassed?

With that in mind the B.C. Green Caucus is proposing the following,

  1. That the Legislature immediately convene an anti-racism all-party committee focused on systemic racism in government institutions;

  2. That government put forward whistleblower legislation that would apply to B.C.’s healthcare system;

  3. That the position of an Indigenous Ombudsperson be created, to have a formal office where Indigenous people can share their experiences of systemic racism in a way that will be heard, understood, and actioned.

We have an opportunity, while this report is still fresh in elected official’s minds, to right historical wrongs and create a more safe and inclusive space for those who speak up when they encounter systemic racism. This is a long path, and not an easy one, but we have solutions in front of us that can get us closer to the just society we all deserve.