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B.C. medical colleges apologize for Indigenous racism

Grand chief calls anti-racism pledges ‘grandiose, fuzzy statements’
Union of B.C. Indians Chiefs Grand Chief Stewart Phillip said he wants to see concrete action on the ground with regulators’ bylaws re-written to reflect such apologies | Photo: BIV Files

Leaders representing more than 90,000 B.C. health workers have apologized to the province’s Indigenous peoples for racism experienced in medical settings.

“As the leaders of the four largest health regulatory colleges in British Columbia, we offer our apology to the Indigenous people and communities who have experienced racism while engaging with us and with the health professionals we regulate,” said the apology from B.C.’s four leading health care regulatory bodies.

Union of B.C. Indians Chiefs Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, however, said First Nations people have heard many apologies. He wants to see concrete action on the ground with regulators’ bylaws re-written to reflect such apologies.

“Apologies are merely statements of good intentions,” Phillip said.

The statement, released late Tuesday, said Indigenous people have waited far too long for their legal rights to be recognized. 

“And they have waited too long for health-system leaders to dismantle the racism that was built into our colonial health-care system – racism that continues to cause harm to this day,” the apology said.

The apology came from B.C. College of Nurses and Midwives registrar Cynthia Johansen, College of Pharmacists of British Columbia registrar Bob Nakagawa, College of Dental Surgeons of British Columbia registrar Dr. Chris Hacker and College of Physicians and Surgeons of British Columbia registrar Dr. Heidi Oetter.

The apology came in the wake of two reports from former judge Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond.

The first, in November, found “widespread and insidious racism” at all levels of B.C.’s health-care system.

The second, in February, found that such racism was fuelling poorer health outcomes and early deaths for Indigenous people, especially women.

“Indigenous people have inequitable access to primary and preventative health-care services, which perpetuates and cascades into poor health outcomes all across the lifespan,” Turpel-Lafond said in her February In Plain Sight report.

“When you combine these factors with the overwhelming evidence of racism in the health-care system... it’s not difficult to see why health outcomes for Indigenous peoples are poorer,” she said.

The colleges said Turpel-Lafond's work “provided evidence of widespread fear and mistrust of the health-care system due to the prevalence of stereotypes, discrimination, racism and abuse experienced by Indigenous people.”

And, they said, the current health-care system continues to limit access to medical treatment and negatively affects the health and wellness of Indigenous people.

“Our pledge now is to become anti-racist and to support the health professionals we regulate to do the same,” the apology said. “We will be guided by Indigenous elders and professionals, the recommendations contained in the In Plain Sight report and by the legal and ethical requirements to provide respect, dignity and equitable health care for the Indigenous people of this province.”

Phillip said he respects Turpel-Lafond’s work but added, “unfortunately, the tyranny of the status quo continues.”

“Racism has become inherent in this country; it’s become part of the Canadian psyche,” he said.

Among pledges the colleges made are to:

• Draw on Indigenous knowledge keepers and professionals to guide work;
• Provide education and develop practice standards to ensure Indigenous people receive culturally safe health care;
• Invest in supports and remove barriers to ensure that Indigenous people do not feel isolated or unsafe when filing a complaint;
• Ensure board, staff and committee members are trained in cultural safety and humility, antiracism, unconscious bias, and, as appropriate, trauma-informed care;
• Broaden Indigenous participation on boards and committees and staff teams;
• Promote anti-racism and Indigenous cultural safety and humility as core competencies for current and future health-care providers;
• Build partnerships with Indigenous groups to promote system change and dismantle racism;
• Work with our fellow regulators to implement the recommendations of the In Plain Sight report; and
• Identify and support changes in legislation and bylaws to deconstruct colonialism, value Indigenous ways of knowing and eliminate harm for Indigenous people.

Phillip called the pledges “grandiose, fuzzy statements.”

He said for anything to change, what’s necessary is for the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples to have parity with Canada’s Constitution and for its principles to be written into regulators’ bylaws.

“There needs to be consequences for the human rights violations of indigenous peoples,” he said. “There needs to be consequences for these institutions that come to bear on indigenous peoples.”

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