B.C. Emergency Room Staff Allegedly Guessed Indigenous Patients' Alcohol Levels

VANCOUVER — British Columbia’s premier says there’s no excuse for “dehumanizing behaviour” after some emergency room staff were accused of playing a game to guess the blood-alcohol levels of Indigenous patients.

“I am outraged by reports of ugly, anti-Indigenous, racist behaviour at multiple health-care facilities in B.C.,” John Horgan said in a statement Friday.

“No one should worry that when they visit a hospital that they will be prejudged and given a lower standard of care. If confirmed, this is a heartbreaking example of systemic racism in our province.”

Health Minister Adrian Dix said he was made aware of the alleged “abhorrent practices” on Thursday evening involving ER staff who would guess test results before they were confirmed of Indigenous people and perhaps others.

“The game involved guessing the blood-alcohol level of patients, essentially in advance or during their treatment. Obviously, playing a game of that sort is beyond unacceptable,” he told reporters on a conference call.

“If substantiated, these practices are racist and unacceptable.”

Dix has asked B.C.’s former children’s advocate, Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, who has also been a provincial court judge in Saskatchewan, to investigate the allegations.

The minister declined to say which hospital or hospitals were involved, saying the facts must first be established.

“It tells us why we have so far to go,″ he said. “It tells us, as if we needed to know, that systemic racism has not just existed in our country but exists in our country and has impacts on all walks of life.”

Dix said his deputy minister learned of the game from the community and from within the system.

The allegations required an immediate response and, if proven, would have profoundly affected patient care, he said, adding he will work with First Nations Health Council and the First Nations Health Authority to address their concerns about systemic racism.

Dix said he has previously heard about such issues when the province announced new hospitals.

“Without exception I learn of how people have felt about the history of the existing buildings,” he said. “When I meet with First Nations leaders and Metis leaders and others, of course we hear of stories and circumstances where people are not treated well in the health-care system.”

Similar issues of racism in the health-care system are bound to surface, Dix said.

The First Nations Leadership Council said in a statement that the investigation must be transparent.

“We fully expect that those who committed these serious breaches of trust will be held accountable for their actions and, pending the outcome of the investigation, have their medical licences revoked for compromising the dignity, care and lives of Indigenous patients.”

‘It’s depolorable’

Cheryl Casimer, who is on the political executive of the First Nations Summit, one of three groups that form the council, said the alleged racism speaks volumes about how Indigenous people are stereotyped when it comes to alcohol.

“It’s deplorable. It’s that whole stereotype of if you see an Indigenous person and they’re not quite themselves the first thought is they’re drunk. Well, you’d be surprised how many Indigenous Peoples in our communities and in this province and country don’t drink.”

Casimer said she had her own experience of racism in an emergency about 20 years ago when she sought treatment for abdominal pain after returning from a meeting of the Assembly of First Nations in Ottawa.

The doctor asked a question Casimer can’t forget: “Is it as a result of maybe the numerous partners of intercourse that you may have had at this gathering?”

Severe pain had her back in the ER where she was diagnosed with a cyst on her ovary, requiring immediate surgery, Casimer said.

“With what happened to me I have to do everything in my power to make sure that doesn’t happen to my granddaughter or her children,” she said.


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Dr. Nadine Caron, a general surgeon of First Nations descent, said her reactions ranged from anger to sadness though not surprise when she heard about the allegations.

However, Caron said she is cautiously optimistic the government will address systemic racism in health care because patients and the general public will demand it.

“I’m aware of friends and colleagues going to protests and this might not have been on their radar a month ago,” she said.

In a statement, the provincial health authorities said they were recently “made aware of a report of an unacceptable, racist practice that may be occurring in emergency departments in B.C.”

The health authorities said they support the provincial investigation into the allegations.

“Racism has no place in our hospitals, our workplaces, or our society.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 19, 2020.

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