British Columbia·Reconcile This

Indigenous people not surprised by reports of racist game played in hospitals

Some Indigenous people say discrimination they've faced by doctors and nurses in British Columbia is so normal that they weren't surprised to hear about allegations of an emergency room "game" in which health-care staff guessed the intoxication levels of Indigenous patients.

Health-care staff guessed intoxication levels of concussed or dehydrated people

Yvonne Houssin thought she had food poisoning or heat stroke on one of the hottest days of the summer in Victoria, but she said nurses assumed she was drunk until she was given a blood test. She now wonders if she was part of the game that's alleged to have been played in emergency rooms in B.C. (Supplied by Yvonne Houssin )

Some Indigenous people say discrimination they've faced by doctors and nurses in British Columbia is so common that they weren't surprised to hear about allegations of an emergency room "game" in which health-care staff guessed the intoxication levels of Indigenous patients.

But the allegations are still triggering, they say.

"It broke my heart. I wanted to scream and cry, [but] I wasn't surprised," said Tania Dick, a Dzawada̱ʼenux̱w nurse of 17 years.

"I'm an emergency nurse, and I was visualizing the nurses gathering in a little circle and throwing out their numbers," she said.

"Playing this game with someone's life … every second you're not actually providing care, you're withholding care," she said.

It took Dick back to 2008, when her aunt Debbie Coon hit her head and suffered a concussion, but doctors and nurses at a hospital in Port Hardy, B.C., presumed otherwise.

"They assumed she was under the influence, that she was drunk and could sleep it off," Dick said.

Coon later died of acute subdural hematoma from an accidental fall, according to the verdict of a coroner's inquest in 2009. A toxicology report found she had no alcohol or drugs in her system.

"It was an absolutely preventable death," Dick said.

Debbie Coon, centre, was 48 when she died in a hospital from a head injury she suffered in a fall at her home. Health-care professionals in the hospital assumed she was intoxicated, but a toxicology report showed no alcohol or drugs in her blood. (Supplied by Tania Dick)

Although Dick now wishes she had taken legal action over her aunt's death, it did propel her to become an advocate for better treatment of Indigenous people in the health-care system. 

Patient wonders if she was part of game

Yvonne Houssin, who is Métis, remembers taking herself to a Victoria-area hospital during one of the hottest days of the summer in 2018, because she was feeling faint and suspected she had food poisoning.

"I was feeling, like, really, really light-headed," said Houssin, a 23-year-old university student in Victoria.

But once she was checked in, she said a nurse became aggressive with her, demanding to know what drugs she was on and if she was drunk.

"I just kept saying it's just food poisoning ... and I was so apologetic, because they were being so aggressive," she said. 

It was only when she was given a blood test and it was determined she had no alcohol or drugs in her blood that she was given a bed and hooked up to an IV to rehydrate her, she said.

Many suffering from heat stroke

She recalls a mother of a non-Indigenous patient pointing out that many people in the ER that day were suffering from heat stroke.

"That's when it really hit me, [and I thought] so there's a lot of people in here throwing up and sick and I'm the only one that was yelled at for drugs and alcohol?" she said.

When she heard B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix announce an investigation into the allegations last Friday, Houssin wondered if she had been part of a racist game.

She says she wasn't surprised to hear about the allegations — but was surprised that a government was taking them seriously. 

Some feel too vulnerable to request liaison

Hospitals across Canada have what are called Aboriginal patient navigators, people acting as liaisons to refer Indigenous people to the right health-care resources. According to Interior Health, they also help make Indigenous patients feel emotionally and culturally safe while they are in the hospital.

But a number of Indigenous people have never heard of the role, and some say they feel too vulnerable when they are sick in the hospital to ask for a patient navigator.

Houssin says she considered asking for an Indigenous advocate during her experience but said she didn't want to aggravate the staff.

Former First Nations Health Authority chief executive Joe Gallagher is a champion of 'cultural safety and humility' in B.C.'s health services, but says addressing anti-Indigenous racism in the system must go much further. (Supplied by Joe Gallagher)

Anti-Indigenous racism in the health-care system is not new. To address it, health authorities provide cultural sensitivity training to their staff.

One of them is the online San'yas Indigenous Cultural Safety Program, which is designed to increase Indigenous-specific knowledge and strengthen skills for professionals working with Indigenous people. 

But such programs have been criticized for not having the capacity on their own to change racist behaviour. Another criticism is that those assigned to complete the program can simply walk away from their computer while it is playing.

For those who helped champion cultural sensitivity training, like former First Nations Health Authority chief executive Joe Gallagher, it's only one piece of the puzzle. 

"You can't just take the training, tick the box, and all of a sudden think you are culturally safe," Gallagher said.

"The problem is when people cannot see their own bias."

Gallagher believes there needs to be a system of accountability in the health-care system where people can call bias out, and "create a culture within the system to call itself out."

The provincial investigation into the alleged racist game is being led by former judge Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond.


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.