British Columbia

B.C. hospital cuts 4 B.C. Indigenous health workers' jobs during racism probe

Four unionized Indigenous health and wellness workers were terminated from St. Paul's Hospital in Vancouver during a provincial investigation into racism in B.C.'s health-care system, CBC News has learned.

Providence Health says the cuts are an expansion of its Indigenous health program

Rose McDonald stands outside St. Paul's Hospital, where she once worked ensuring Indigenous patients were treated with dignity and had cultural safety. Her unionized job was one of four terminated to make way for five new non-union jobs. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Four unionized Indigenous health and wellness workers were terminated from St. Paul's Hospital in Vancouver during a provincial investigation into racism in B.C.'s health-care system, CBC News has learned. 

All were Indigenous women.

"It was a slap in the face," said Rose McDonald, who is Anishinaabe and one of the workers whose job was cut as part of what Providence Health Care called a "program expansion" in response to the province's investigation into racism, launched in July. 

For two years, McDonald's job included advocating for Indigenous patients — spiritually, emotionally and physically — and stepping in when patients faced racism. 

"Displacing our positions like that is doing exactly the opposite of what that [health-care racism] report is suggesting," said McDonald, who also goes by her traditional name, Miskwa Animikii Ikwe. 

McDonald received a letter on Nov. 12 that her position was being "displaced." Four days later, five new Indigenous wellness liaison positions were posted to the Providence website. All five jobs are non-union and require a bachelor of social work to qualify.

Providence, a non-profit organization providing services in partnership with Vancouver Coastal Health and the Provincial Health Services Authority, told the CBC that the cuts reflect a restructuring as a response to the Ministry of Health's investigation into racism in B.C's health-care system. It also said it will "uphold the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's calls to action."

A letter Providence Health provided to the CBC stated: "we take the immediate recommendations from the Ministry of Health and TRC calls to action very seriously, and are doing everything we can to ensure Indigenous patients receive culturally safe experiences while receiving our services." 

Health Minister Adrian Dix told the CBC he was just learning of the situation and would follow up on it when he could.

'Not impressed with the treatment of people'

Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, who headed the province's investigation, was equally surprised.

"I was never briefed that was happening, nor did I advise it," she told the CBC.

She said Providence never shared a plan with her, nor an explanation for removing the four Indigenous women from their positions at St. Paul's.

"I'm not very impressed by the way it's been handled in terms of the treatment of people," she said.

She did say her report laid out concern that St. Paul's, a hospital that serves many Indigenous people, did not have enough Indigenous health workers on board and should have more.

"I anticipated that might mean additional staff would be needed to be hired," she said.

"It's always a very significant concern when people are displaced from their work, particularly during a pandemic, and particularly in terms of supporting Indigenous people who need support at the point of care," she said. 

'It's very recolonizing' 

In Turpel-Lafond's report into health-care racism, released Monday, she said "it is important to increase the number of Indigenous health-care workers to enhance cultural safety within the health-care system" and it's critical that these work environments are "protected under collective bargaining agreements and labour laws to create safe and discrimination-free environments."

Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond speaking at a news conference presenting the findings of her report on widespread racism in B.C.'s health-care system. (Mike McArthur/CBC)

She also said it was a legal responsibility and obligation of any workplace.

As a unionized employee, McDonald was told she could "bump" another worker and take their position, but none of the roles available are focused on Indigenous patients and the cultural safety she once provided. She does not have a bachelor of social work and said she is disappointed she could not be "grandfathered in" to the new role. 

McDonald is also concerned that there seems to have been no consultation with patients, the Indigenous community, or her team, which built relationships with patients for years. 

For another Indigenous woman — who also worked as a unionized Indigenous health and wellness worker for five years at St. Paul's and whose job was also cut — the process felt "racist and colonial." The CBC is not naming the woman as she fears it could jeopardize her future employment. 

"Having four women losing their positions in the midst of a pandemic right now, I really don't see how that is an example of cultural safety or anti-racism," she said.

"It's almost as if they're acting like we never existed. So it's very recolonizing," she added.

Fighting for women to keep jobs

The union representing the four women, the Hospital Employees' Union, hopes the women can get their jobs back.

Mike Old, a spokesperson for the union, said Providence is creating the new positions under the guise of truth and reconciliation but said he doesn't understand why the organization wouldn't protect a resource it already has.

"They're uniquely placed to provide culturally appropriate direct support services to Indigenous community members in Vancouver, so it's our view that the program needs both [sets of positions]," Old said.

"They know the community and they know what they're doing," he added.


Angela Sterritt

CBC Reporter

Angela Sterritt is a journalist from the Gitxsan Nation. Sterritt's news and current affairs pieces are featured on national and local CBC platforms. Her CBC column 'Reconcile This' tackles the tensions between Indigenous people and institutions in B.C. Have a story idea?