Ottawa Board of Health reveals anti-racism plan

Ottawa's Board of Health unanimously passed a motion declaring racism a public health issue and announced steps it would take to fix it.

Racism leads to poorer health outcomes and greater risk of death, it says

A file photo of Dr. Vera Etches, Ottawa's medical officer of health, who said anti-racism training will help Ottawa Public Health staff better understand why people facing discrimination have poorer health outcomes. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Racism and discrimination make people less healthy, Ottawa's Board of Health unanimously declared Monday, as it committed to stronger partnerships and better mental health support to try to fix it.

People who experience racism, discrimination and stigma have poorer health, including higher chances of death, and the board said that makes it an important public health concern.

It notes the particular harm racism causes to the health of people from African, Caribbean and Black communities across several sectors including health, education, justice and law enforcement.

The vote comes amid a growing public conversation about racism in society as people around the world protest police brutality and systemic discrimination.

"This is a difficult, emotional and vitally important discussion," said board chair Coun. Keith Egli, who presented the motion. "We wanted the motion to not only say something, but to do something."

A file photo of Coun. Keith Egli, chair of the Ottawa Board of Health, who said racism is not static and the board needs to be flexible in how it responds. (Matthew Kupfer/CBC)

To address this, Ottawa Public Health (OPH) wants to strengthen its relationship with African, Caribbean and Black communities through partnerships aimed at improving metal health.

OPH will also work with Coun. Rawlson King, recently appointed as the city's liaison for anti-racism and ethnocultural relations.

An OPH research study on how racism affects Black people in Ottawa is due at the end of the month.

New OPH training

Monday's motion calls for anti-racism training for OPH staff, board members and volunteers to help them better understand how racism affects health.

"We want to be more aware of how our programs and services can be safer for people who experience racism," said Dr. Vera Etches, Ottawa's medical officer of health.

"We wanted to extend the ability to grow that insight right across the whole organization."

Etches, who has spoken about racism's effects on health in recent weeks, said some staff have already received such training and said it was helpful.

The motion also calls for an "evidence-based campaign" to raise awareness of the impact of racism and discrimination during the COVID-19 pandemic and tell people what they can do about it.

Ottawa is one of the communities collecting race-based data on COVID-19.

Different Indigenous approach

The motion also calls for a partnership to help improve the health of Indigenous people in Ottawa.

"We need to go beyond counting and just numbers," said Etches.

"We need to build in learning through qualitative methods … hearing the stories and peoples' experience to provide context, because there are many different reasons why numbers do not always tell the whole story."

Board member Elyse Banham supported the motion, but questioned why it did not include hiring diverse staff and public health leaders.

"This talks a lot about partnership, but partnerships are outside relationships," Banham said. 

"For things to change you really need leadership on the inside of the organization and you need those views represented."

Etches said OPH was working with the city to improve diversity in its hiring practices.

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