Roots of racism in Winnipeg revealed in Brian Sinclair inquest

Winnipeg writer Don Marks takes a look at how Brian Sinclair's death and subsequent inquest reveal the deep-seated roots of racism, and how we can change.
Brian Sinclair died in a Winnipeg emergency room after waiting 34 hours without receiving care. (Family photo)

Racism is an ugly thing. Good people don’t like to be accused of being racist. 

First Nations leaders often claim their community is victimized by racism​,​ and various socio​-​economic studies and statistics  such as higher rates of incarceration, unemployment and the like  seem to bear this out.

But opponents argue First Nations people are the authors of their own fate. They lose their jobs because they don’t show up for work and they go to jail because they commit crimes. It’s as simple as that.

Racism is real to the average citizen because we hear an abundance of racist comments whispered at gatherings and on street corners and on the bus, and we certainly see ample evidence of it on internet postings that accompany news coverage about First Nations concerns.

When we fail to acknowledge the role racism plays in big problems our society needs to deal with, we waste a lot of time and money by not coming up with answers that are based in reality.

Brian Sinclair

Case in point. The inquest report into the death of Brian Sinclair, who was aboriginal.
An Environics Research Group poll conducted for CBC News found that respondents living in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta expressed lower comfort levels when it comes to engaging with aboriginal Canadians. (Michael Fazio/CBC)

The basics of this tragic incident are well known. A double-amputee suffering from kidney disease, Sinclair wheeled himself into the emergency room at the Health Sciences Centre ​in Winnipeg ​for treatment​,​ only to be found dead 34 hours later. 

Sinclair had been ​seen​ by ​more than​ a dozen HSC staff during his wait​,​ but he never received the care he needed.

The inquest report contains 63 recommendations about basic policies and procedures that are sure to improve things if implemented and strictly followed.

Role of racism ignored

Racism is ignored in the report.

HSC staff have testified they thought Sinclair was intoxicated or homeless, needing time to “sleep it off” or ​to get ​shelter, not care. In a written statement, Sinclair’s cousin Robert, acting as spokesman for the Sinclair family, claims that this kind of stereotyping is at the root cause of why Brian was ignored. 

Robert says the system missed an opportunity to deal with the real reason his cousin was ignored​,​ and said the inquest should ​have ​examine​d​ if a racist mentality still exists in the system. Dozens of aboriginal citizens have complained to local aboriginal newspaper Grassroots News (of which I am the editor) over the years that it does. 

The issue of racism has been discussed by HSC administration and staff. Racism has gained prominent mention in media reports​,​ so we can assume everybody will be on guard to avoid stereotyping and treating people differently based on their appearance, language and other behaviours — at least ​while the memory of Brian Sinclair remains fresh in everybody’s mind.

It could happen again

But as is also so often the case in such matters, the hullabaloo will die down and after a while, some of the old habits and perceptions inevitably creep back in​. Gradually, the conditions for neglect will re-surface.

In addition to all those practical recommendations like “review policies and procedures, create a distinct triage area, review floor plans” and the like, we need to establish ongoing training in how to deal with racism and stereotyping, such as regular workshops on First Nations culture, native orientation and human rights.

So far, all that the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority has said publicly is that they would be naive not to acknowledge that racism does exist, that they are more aware and conscious of it, and that cultural training for staff has been re-tooled.

A priority to keep racism out of the workplace and constant reinforcement of training and techniques to achieve that is just as important as a policy to check on each patient every ​eight​ hours or so.

We all like to believe we are better than that

The problem is that our society is supposed to ​uphold​ these lofty principles that all people should be treated equally and we naively believe (or at least, hope) this is the way it always is. The overall idea is that we shouldn’t have to deal with racism in a special way in the workplace because it shouldn’t exist in society in the first place.

Or perhaps we just don’t want to admit there are racists in our midst, or that we — shudder at the thought — are perhaps racist ourselves.

Whatever, we don’t want to deal with racism head on and we are just sticking our heads in the sand when we don’t.

Ultimately, racism rears its ugly head and we end up with tragedies like the Sinclair incident.

It happens again and again. A minor hockey game takes place and some players from a First Nations team get out of hand and a referee gets assaulted. Despite the fact some very experienced hockey people knew that racism played a part in the fiasco, the powers-that-be just hand out some suspensions and remind people about the general regulations governing behaviour at hockey rinks and games.

There is no effort to bring people (fans and parents) together for some cross-cultural awareness, build some empathy and understanding and create some bridges between different cultures and communities.

I guess in the end it all comes down to whether or not we really believe racism plays a role in what should be equal treatment for all citizens in the basic services our society provides. 

There are public opinion polls that provide snapshots of negative attitudes​,​ but we all like to believe we are better than that.

The well-intentioned racist

​Take​ the nurse who happened by when a native friend of mine was waiting for treatment for a gash he suffered when a picture he was helping me carry slipped and the glass sliced him up.

In the most friendly (and empathetic to her) voice, that nurse exclaimed, “Aw!  Have we been drinking and fighting again?”

She didn’t mean​ any​ harm, she just didn’t know any better.​ ​And this is someone responsible for treating native people who come into care at our hospitals.

Whether it be from reports or personal experience, we all know that racism exists in our health-care system​.

The inquest report into Brian Sinclair’s death should not have ignored it. We need to deal with it.

​Don Marks is a Winnipeg writer and the editor of Grassroots News​.

More from Don Marks:

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