Black nurses' group hopes to promote inclusivity, fight racism within Quebec's health network

Black nurses in Quebec say sometimes racism is overt in the health-care system, such as a patient asking for a white nurse, and sometimes it is more subtle. But it wears them down and is adding to the fatigue created by the pandemic.

Black nurses in Quebec say they experience racism, microaggressions and isolation

Jennifer Philogène is the provincial director of the Canadian Black Nurses Alliance, a group that wants to educate and sensitize people to the realities that Black health-care professionals experience daily. (Dave St-Amant/CBC)

Montreal nursing student Schnaidarlie Banatte says she's often the only Black person on her hospital floor.

And although she's relatively new to the field, she's already had to brush off situations of racism.

"When some people say 'I prefer a white nurse,' it hurts because I'm like 'I'm as competent as her,'" she said.

"I feel like my colour shouldn't be a problem. We are here for [their] health and that's it. We are not here for my colour."

Banatte says her main priority is her patients but incidents like this can make her feel extremely isolated from her other colleagues.

At a time when many health-care professionals are exhausted by a pandemic that has lasted almost two years, Black nurses say they are feeling an extra burden — and they want to do something about it.

Schnaidarlie Banatte is a nursing student in Montreal. She says when situations of racism arise it can be extremely isolating within the health network. (Submitted by Schnaidarlie Banatte)

Banatte's experience is all too common, says Jennifer Philogène, an ICU nurse and the provincial director of the Canadian Black Nurses Alliance (CBNA).

The group was created during the pandemic to promote inclusivity and increase Black representation at all levels of the health network.

"Whenever we get a higher position in the health-care system we feel like we have to show less and less of our Black traits and show more of our Quebecer traits to feel accepted by our colleagues," said Philogène.

She says there's an underrepresentation of Black people in positions of authority within the health-care network — so reporting these kinds of microaggressions or instances of racism can often be challenging.

Microaggressions are subtle — usually unintentional — instances of racism, such as touching a person's hair or calling one Black colleague by another's name.

"CBNA is there to provide resources, to provide support and ensure there's policies and rules for those microaggressions," said Philogène.

The Canadian Black Nurses alliance has also partnered with a number of Quebec universities.

The alliance's goal is to help educate and sensitize people about the experience felt by Black health-care professionals.

It also wants to highlight the accomplishments of Black health-care workers, to showcase role models for students.

Kimani Daniel, a professor at Mcgill University's Ingram School of Nursing, she says a group in support of Black nurses is long overdue in the province to address the challenges black health-care professionals experience. (Submitted by Kimani Daniel)

More leadership roles needed

"I think as nurses and in the health-care system we have a duty to represent the population we serve, so it doesn't make sense if some groups are not represented in the health-care system," says Kimani Daniel, a professor at Mcgill University's Ingram School of Nursing.

"It does a disservice to the patients we are caring for."

Daniel says representation is important so that nurses feel comfortable going to a superior about complaints or issues.

Concrete actions to avoid long-term consequences

Assumpta Ndengeyingoma, a professor in the department of nursing sciences at the Université du Québec en Outaouais, co-authored a report presented to the Quebec's Order of Nurses.

The report looked at the discrimination experienced by people of different racial backgrounds at all levels in the nursing profession.

Ndengeyingoma says people from minority backgrounds often report being questioned about their abilities, or feeling undermined due to the color of their skin.

That can lead to long-term consequences, she said.

"They will always be hypervigilant and they will always be alert and this hypervigilance all day long, in a world that is already stressful will lead to exhaustion for these nurses."

She says on top of this, many nurses from minority backgrounds reported not feeling protected by their colleagues and managers.

So, in order to better support these nurses, she says it's important that there be a system so people can report instances of racism or discrimination.

Her report also recommended that the order provide annual statistics on the racial makeup of the province's nursing corps and that courses be given to sensitize people about unconscious and preconceived prejudices toward colleagues of racial minority backgrounds.

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.