British Columbia·Reconcile This

Indigenous elder's death from COVID-19 in care home was overshadowed by racism, family and friends say

Loved ones of an Indigenous elder who died of COVID-19 at a long-term care home in Vancouver are speaking out about what they call anti-Indigenous discrimination at the facility.

Providence Health Care says it is taking 'disturbing allegations' from Carole Dawson's son seriously

Carole Dawson is remembered as a staunch advocate for Indigenous rights who fought to see better treatment of Indigenous people in the health-care system and in child welfare. (Ben Nelms)

Loved ones of Indigenous elder Carole Dawson, who died of COVID-19 at Vancouver's Holy Family Hospital, say she faced discrimination in life and in death while at the facility.

Dawson, who was known as a longtime champion of Indigenous health and rights in B.C., contracted COVID-19 while living in the rehabilitation unit of the long-term care facility, which has been dealing with a growing number of cases since an outbreak was declared on June 9.

Dawson died on June 21, aged 72.

Her son, Jason Allard, claims Dawson was mistreated and discriminated against at Holy Family because of her Indigenous heritage.

He also says just minutes after learning of his mother's death, a member of Holy Family staff told him he had to collect her body within an hour — and that some of Dawson's valuables were not initially returned to him.

Providence Health Care, the provider responsible for the Holy Family Hospital, refutes Allard's claims of discrimination and says Dawson was a beloved member of the home.

Champion of Indigenous rights

Dawson and Allard are Dzawada'enuxw and have spent their lives in Kingcome Inlet, on B.C.'s Central Coast, and in Vancouver. 

Dawson worked at the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs (UBCIC) in the organization's early days as the health liaison officer and later as the family, children and health director. 

She was a survivor of the St. Michael's Residential School at Alert Bay on Cormorant Island, just off Vancouver Island's northeast coast, and spent much of her life helping others overcome trauma and addictions by championing culturally appropriate health care for Indigenous people.

Jason Allard and his mother Carole Dawson, who died of COVID-19 after contracting the disease at Holy Family Hospital. Allard says both he and she were mistreated at the care home, during her life and after she died. (Facaebook )

Dawson moved into Holy Family Hospital in the fall of 2018, after she was hit by a tour bus in Vancouver. 

Allard alleges that while at the care home, his mother would be left on a toilet for hours, waiting for a nurse. 

"I think there was quite a bit of racism involved, but my mom didn't want to make waves," Allard said from his home in Vancouver.

Providence Health Care claims that in a recent phone call with a representative about his concerns with the care home, Allard said Dawson was treated well.

But Allard maintains that his mother was discriminated against because of her Indigenous heritage. 

Told to pick up deceased body within hour

Allard alleges the night his mother died, a Holy Family staff member called him at 1:30 a.m. with the news. Just 15 minutes later, he says, he was told to pick her body up within the hour. 

"I said, 'Excuse me, what are you saying to me, you want me to come and get my mom's body?'" Allard said.

"I was so upset that they more or less expected me to find a funeral home within an hour of my mom's passing."

Such a request to a grief-stricken family member is not standard practice, says seniors advocate Isobel Mackenzie, who has 20 years' experience working with seniors in home care.

"That would have been a mistake," Mackenzie said.

"My first thought is, who is calling at 1:30 in the morning? The question is, how does the care home deal with the situation when somebody has not done the appropriate thing?" she said.

The Ministry of Health told CBC News that during the pandemic there are no new protocols outlining swifter timelines to remove a body or belongings from a care home.

Allard said shortly after the initial call, another staff member called, apologizing for the error.

Marianne Nicolson, a well known Dzawada'enuxw artist and close family friend of Dawson and Allard, said she was horrified to see the way Allard was treated at the Holy Family Hospital and says the health-care system failed his mother. (Ben Nelms)

Belongings not returned

Allard says while Holy Family returned four garbage bags of his mother's belongings, they didn't include some valuables, including Indigenous jewlery and electronics.

He said he was told that those items had been thrown out by cleaning staff.

He also alleges the home initially refused to return Dawson's wheelchair, saying ICBC paid for it.

Marianne Nicolson, a close family friend who helped Allard with funeral arrangements, said she witnessed Holy Family staff telling Allard his mom's valuables were gone. 

"I was just so blown away by it and upset because I could see how he had been treated," Nicolson said.

She said when she and Allard arrived at the care home to recover Dawson's belongings, they were left waiting outside for more than 30 minutes. When a staff member met them, she gave Allard a business card with information about how to file a complaint.

"I asked her, is this your only recourse, wouldn't you have a record of [the valuables]?" Nicolson said.

Nicolson alleges the staff person only said, "They are gone."

"I thought, this is really horrific ... I could see that the way [Allard] was being treated, that a lot of assumptions were made about who he was — that he was Indigenous, didn't have a lot of money and didn't have support to fight something like this," she said. 

Mackenzie said usually a care home would pack belongings in boxes for a family and that while there's often a rush to clean rooms for the next patron, the family should be shown compassion and cultural sensitivity.

"I think it is an area we need to work on throughout the system, particularly around end of life," Mackenzie said.

Over several weeks, starting June 23, Allard made repeated calls to the home to try to retrieve his mother's belongings, and was repeatedly told that they were gone. 

On July 23, three days after CBC News called Providence Health Care to investigate the allegations, Allard was told the care home had found her valuables.

Providence response

Providence corroborated Allard's story in a recent letter outlining his concerns. It says it hand-delivered the letter to him. 

In its letter, Providence said that misplacing Dawson's belongings "might actually have been as a result of the confusion occurring as the pandemic took hold at Holy Family Hospital, but that further exploration was required."

The letter also said Providence is working on determining "the best way to maximize the value of your mom's wheelchair."

In a statement to CBC News, Providence Health Care said it is "aware of disturbing allegations regarding the treatment and care of a specific resident at Holy Family Hospital.

"We take all such allegations very seriously. The allegations are being addressed through our Patient Care Quality Office, which is working with the client."

It said it recommended family members consider forwarding information to Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, as part of her independent investigation into Indigenous-specific discrimination in British Columbia's health-care system.

Indigenous Health and Wellness

In its letter to Allard, Providence also said it would contact him in two months to confirm whether he would like to "meet with members of the nursing team in a facilitated meeting to share [his] experience and meet with the Indigenous Health and Wellness team for support/community."

The Indigenous Health and Wellness program was established by Providence Health Care in 2011 to provide "culturally safe and competent care to a diverse population of First Nations," according to the health-care provider's website.

Allard and Nicolson believe if members of the media had not looked into their claims, they would still be fighting to get Dawson's valuables back. 

They say they want to feel safe going into any health-care facility and be afforded the same respect as others.


Angela Sterritt

CBC Reporter

Angela Sterritt is an ​award-winning investigative journalist. She is the host of Land Back, a six-part CBC British Columbia original podcast that uncovers land theft and land reclamation in Canada. Sterritt is known for her impactful journalism on the tensions between Indigenous people and institutions in Canada. She is a proud member of the Gitxsan Nation.