Former Cree leader testifies at public inquiry about racist treatment at Val-d'Or hospital

William Mianscum says health care workers should be educated about the Indigenous patients they serve.

William Mianscum says there's a pressing need to educate health care workers about Indigenous realities

William Mianscum said he was relieved to share his story publicly at the Viens Commission hearings in Mistissini, Que. (Corinne Smith/CBC )

A former Cree leader says he experienced racism at a northern Quebec hospital and that health care workers should be educated about the Indigenous patients they serve.

William Mianscum, a former chair of the Cree School Board and past chief of the James Bay community of Mistissini, Que., testified this week at public hearings held in the community by the Viens Commission — the provincial inquiry mandated to examine how Indigenous people are treated by public services in Quebec.

Mianscum told the commission about his short stay at the Val-d'Or, Que., hospital in May 2015, while returning from a trip to North Bay, Ont., where he had visited his grandchildren.

Mianscum said he was experiencing breathing and vision problems in North Bay, and spent five days in a local hospital before heading home with his wife. They stopped overnight at a motel in Val-d'Or where he woke at midnight with difficulty breathing and went to the emergency room.

At the Val-d'Or hospital, Mianscum was diagnosed as having water in his lungs and put on a respirator. After he was stabilized he was transferred to the recovery room and given oxygen through the nose.

Mianscum, right, was one of several people to share personal stories at the Viens Commission hearings in Mistissini. (Submitted by Commission d’enquête CERP)

A few hours later, Mianscum had to use the bathroom and rang the nurse. He said she left the oxygen tubes in his nose, unplugged the wires from the wall, and carried them as she accompanied him to the washroom.

As they passed another nurse in the hallway, Mianscum said she told her "je vais marcher mon chien." or  "I'm going to walk my dog."

"I understood this, but I was in no position to retaliate," he told the commission. "I didn't know what was going to happen next."

I feel it's another horror story.-Justice Jacques Viens

Mianscum also described how another Cree patient in the recovery room, a man from Waskaganish, Que., had asked for help throughout the night. He said the nurse repeatedly told the man a doctor would see him in the morning.

When the doctor did arrive at 7 a.m., Mianscum said she ordered that the patient be medevaced to a hospital in Montreal. 

"I heard later the guy didn't make it, he passed on the plane," Mianscum said, adding he felt the nurse "had something against Aboriginal people."

Retired Quebec Superior Court Justice Jacques Viens is overseeing the inquiry. (Radio-Canada/Émélie Rivard-Boudreau)

"She didn't have to say anything. Her actions spoke louder than words. Those actions are racist, they're discriminatory, but I was in no mood to speak with her. I didn't know what she was capable of."

After Mianscum finished his testimony, retired Quebec Superior Court Justice Jacques Viens, who is overseeing the inquiry, said "I feel it's another horror story. Telling someone else that she's going with her dog, telling that to another nurse, it's completely unacceptable."

"I feel if she was listening to you, she would understand that is not appropriate."

'I felt like if I don't tell this, my people will be hurting'

Following his appearance, Mianscum said he was relieved to tell his story.

"I've been feeling guilty that I did not at that time in the hospital say anything to the administration of the hospital about what had transpired," he said. "I felt like if I don't tell this, my people will be hurting."

Mianscum said he was inspired to approach the Viens Commission after hearing testimony from Natasia Mukash, a Cree woman from Whapmagoostui, Que., who last year shared with the inquiry her story about her experience at the Val-d'Or Hospital during a miscarriage.

Mianscum said there's a pressing need to educate health care workers on Indigenous realities because "a lot of non-Natives do not understand the history of Aboriginal people, where we came from, our language, our culture, our systems of government."

The Viens Commission was set up in 2016 to see how Indigenous people are treated by public services in Quebec. (Corinne Smith/CBC )

"I think non-Aboriginal professionals need to understand where we came from, they need to understand how we lived," he said.

"We no longer live the way we lived 100 years ago. We've changed considerably. We evolved. They need to know that. We're not all the way they picture us to be."

The two-year long Viens Commission was launched in December 2016, a year after Radio-Canada's investigative program Enquête reported allegations by several Indigenous women that they had been mistreated by police officers in Val-d'Or. 

The inquiry is expected to be complete by Nov. 30.