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Racism against Indigenous people entrenched in health care, Manitoba CEO admits while vowing to eradicate it

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The head of northern Manitoba’s health-care system is apologizing for historic and continuing racism against Indigenous people seeking medical care, and promising change.

“Let me begin by acknowledging that Indigenous-specific racism has existed and continues to be present within the Northern Health Region,” Helga Bryant, CEO of the health authority, said at a news conference in Thompson.

“On behalf of our staff, I offer our humble, heartfelt apology. We’re truly sorry for the harm this has caused. We collectively hope that healing can begin as we work in partnership to eliminate all forms of Indigenous-specific racism throughout the Northern Health Region.”

Bryant’s apology came moments after she signed a declaration Monday on behalf of the Northern Health Region that vowed to eradicate all forms of Indigenous-specific racism within northern Manitoba’s health-care system.

The commitment is the result of a new partnership between the health authority, Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak and Keewatinohk Inniniw Minoayawin that was celebrated at a news conference at the Ma-Mow-We-Tak Friendship Centre. Other chiefs and provincial Health Minister Audrey Gordon signed the declaration as well.

Patient experience

The three partners also agreed to a twice-a-year evaluation of their progress toward eliminating racism toward Indigenous people.

Dr. Barry Lavallee, CEO of Keewatinohk Inniniw Minoayawin, a self-governing First Nations health organization, said one of the best indicators of their success will be the first-hand experiences of people using the health-care system.

Lavallee said they will develop databases that measure how Indigenous and non-Indigenous people interact with the health-care system. 

“In other jurisdictions, when we examined racism, we found out in order to go deep into the health-care system, you need identifiers and data,” he said.

“By doing so, we could follow the trail of a person from admission to discharge.”

Dr. Barry Lavallee, the medical advisor for MKO health entity Keewatinohk Inniniw Minoayawin, says the personal experiences of patients will be relied upon to assess the progress of efforts to eliminate anti-Indigenous racism in the health-care system in northern Manitoba. (Gary Solilak/CBC)

Bernice Thorassie said she takes multiple phone calls a day from people who feel wronged by the health-care system. She works for Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak as a client navigator. 

“I’m on that phone, endless hours, connecting with resources to ensure that our clients are receiving the adequate medical care that they need, and it seems like the door keeps closing on them because of anti-Indigenous racism in the system.”

Hospital staff once pushed for the amputation of the lower extremities of her son, who was suffering from a bad ulcer, Thorassie said. She believes her son’s mental disability clouded staff judgment.

He never got the amputation and is now doing well, she said.

Thorassie also recalled a newborn who went hours without milk or water because medical staff thought the baby, who was born with a medical issue, was about to die.

Family advocated for nourishment for the baby, who is now four-and-a-half years old and living in his community. 

Various speakers at Monday’s announcement acknowledged that stamping out racism would be difficult, but it is worth doing. 

“The road that lies before us will be challenging. It will be hard, sometimes uncomfortable, but we are committing ourselves to collaborate, to begin the healing of decades of systemic racism,” said MKO Grand Chief Garrison Settee.

Racism against Indigenous people entrenched in health care, Manitoba CEO admits while vowing to eradicate it

The head of northern Manitoba’s health-care system is apologizing for historic and continuing racism against Indigenous people seeking medical care, and promising change.

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