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Health

Canada's Indigenous People Are Dying Because of Racism in Health Care


Why Global Citizens Should Care 
Racism in health care systems is a global issue that results in many unnecessary deaths. Goal 3 of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals calls for good health and well-being for all, and it can only be achieved when proper health care reaches everyone who needs it. You can take action here.

Anti-Indigenous racism in Canada’s health care system is leading to unnecessary deaths, according to research reported on this week.

Dr. Janet Smylie, a Métis physician and a researcher at the Centre for Urban Health Solutions at St. Michael's Hospital, has been studying the effects of anti-Indigenous racism in the country’s system for the last 15 years, CBC reported.

"To me, the most important impacts are that people are dying unnecessarily or experiencing disability," Smylie told CBC.

Anti-Indigenous racism has already been highlighted in the Northwest Territories’ health care system, but Smylie has found it to be a problem not just in NWT, but across Canada.

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"I have a hypothesis, and I would love for someone to disprove it. The most important and dangerous kinds of racism that people encounter is actually racism that's hidden. It's even hidden to the person who is having the racist behaviour," she told CBC.

Smylie said the racism is not always intentional but can be "implicit." For example, First Nation, Inuit, and Métis communities do not always see the same public health messages as the rest of Canadians — so their rates of commercial tobacco use are higher.

In other cases, racism is more apparent.

Aklavik elder Hugh Papik died of a stroke in August 2016 after health care workers assumed he was drunk. Following his death, an external investigation led to 16 recommendations for the Government of Northwest Territories to act on, in order to address the need for reform in the territory’s health care system.

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One of the recommendations was cultural training for health-care workers.

NWT Health Minister Glen Abernethy, who has visited with many people in the NWT that have expressed concern over racism in the health care system, said training is on its way.

Department officials worked with Indigenous governments to develop training that will address different cultures, the history of residential schools and colonization, and difficulties that come with delivering health care in small and remote areas.

"We're excited by this work, we know that it's going to help us be a more responsive, respectful system and we're looking forward to getting it done," he told CBC.

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Unfortunately, this is part of a broader trend of racism in health care around the world.

In the United States, for instance, black mothers are 243% more likely than white mothers to die from pregnancy or complications related to childbirth, according to a report from ProPublica and NPR.

"[W]hile part of the disparity can be attributed to factors like poverty and inadequate access to health care, there is growing evidence that points to the quality of care at hospitals where a disproportionate number of black women deliver, which are often in neighborhoods disadvantaged by segregation," the report found.

Addressing racism and social bias in health care could prevent unnecessary deaths and lead to overall better health for all, which is what Abernathy is essentially trying to accomplish in the NWT.

"But this isn't something you can switch overnight, this is something that's going to take years and years and years to change," he told CBC.