Canadian Blood Services needs Black Canadians to donate, but expert says barriers persist
1.6% of donors in stem cell registry are of African descent, compared to 3% of population
Canadian Blood Services is urging Black Canadians to help diversify its blood donor and stem cell registry base.
But one expert says that call needs to include an acknowledgement of historical harm that Canadian Blood Services itself has done to the Black community.
There are currently around 1,000 people in Canada looking for a stem cell donor through the organization.
But matches are only found among donors who share the same ethnicity and heritage as the recipient, said Matthew Seftel, a physician with the non-profit group.
About 1.6 per cent of donors in the stem cell donor registry are of African descent, while around three per cent of the Canadian population self-identify as Black, according to the 2016 census.
The chances of someone from a minority group, like an African Nova Scotian, finding a match would be close to impossible, said Trish Smith, regional communications officer with the group.
"The African Nova Scotian community is so unique," she said. "Some people consider it like an Indigenous African Nova Scotian community…. So the roots are really deep here, and so it makes the biology even more unique."
The most frequently reported ethnic and cultural origins of Black Canadians in Atlantic Canada are Canadian, African, English, Irish, Scottish and French, according to Statistics Canada.
Nova Scotia's Black population of nearly 22,000 is the largest in the Atlantic provinces.
'We are not included'
Part of the reason for the disproportionately low number of donors of African descent is that Black people have long been discouraged from participating, said OmiSoore Dryden, an associate professor at Dalhousie University who studies blood donation protocols and anti-Black racism in health care.
"During the '80s and '90s, Black communities, specifically Haitian communities, were told that it was their fault that there was HIV and AIDS in Canada," partly due to donating blood, said Dryden.
"And then in 1998, when Canadian Blood Services started, they perpetuated the argument that AIDS came from Africa and if you were born and or lived in Africa, you can't donate."
Dryden said the organization needs to acknowledge that this systemic racism persists.
"It's not simply that we are not included, but it means that when we need these services, they do not have the supply that we need," she said. "And so it's a systemic barrier from having us participate, and it's a systemic outcome because we don't have what we need."
Rebuilding a broken relationship
In 2016, Canadian Blood Services lifted the ban on blood donations from individuals born in some African countries, saying it was able to prove to Health Canada that its testing methods could detect strains of HIV that arose in certain African countries.
Smith said Canadian Blood Services is developing anti-racist and anti-oppressive practices to implement organization-wide.
It's also working closely with leaders in the Black community to make the donation process more inclusive, she said.
She pointed to the organization's partnership with the Sickle Cell Disease Association of Canada, which is aimed at studying barriers that members of some communities face when it comes to donating blood.
"We understand there are lasting consequences of past and current eligibility criteria, and we are actively engaged in work to further understand and address the depths of harm and stigma experienced by people from impacted communities," Smith said, adding that the work will take many years.
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.