New diversity alliance a 'big responsibility' for Hôtel-Dieu Grace Healthcare
'You can't say to your patients this is a safe space when you don't feel safe yourself.'
When Martin Thompson walks in the underground tunnels of Hôtel-Dieu Grace Healthcare (HDGH) he sees himself in the murals along the walls, signs of inclusivity he hopes to see grow by leading the organization's new diversity alliance.
What started out as an anti-Black racism task force two years ago has evolved into what's been formally established as the Equity, Diversity, Inclusion and Indigenity (EDII) alliance last week. The death of George Floyd on May 25, 2020, sparked conversations internally about how the organization can better eliminate racism and be more of a welcoming place for all staff and patients.
"The things I hear and see that I've experienced, the majority of it isn't hateful, but it's ignorant, it's misunderstanding," said alliance chair Thompson, who is also a peer adviser with the Assertive Community Treatment team, assisting people with severe mental illness.
A co-worker asking Thompson if he knows another person simply because they're also Black is an example of conversations he said he would like to see stop through education and awareness.
"The person is not necessarily being inherently racist, but they're not understanding that it can be insulting to assume all Black people know one and another," said Thompson.
You gotta have some courage and conviction here. The courage to look at everything and the conviction to make change.- Bill Marra, president and CEO of HDGH
At 51 years old, Thompson said these experiences are unfortunately just "part of your fibre."
"It's what happens. It's almost like it's OK," he added.
The alliance is meant to ensure everyone is treated equally, he said. It includes voices from the Black, Indigenous and people of colour (BIPOC) communities, LGBTQ people and those with disabilities.
During his nearly 20 years at HDGH, Thompson said he's loved the working environment and has always been accepted, but he hopes to "make it even better."
Alliance involved to include Indigenous voices
Within several months of the alliance forming, the graves of Indigenous children started being more widely detected in 2021. Then the first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, the alliance also started including Indigenous issues within their scope.
"Finding out about all these children that were found in these graves. We kind of jumped on that naturally, as a group, and we actually ended up writing a letter to the Pope asking for the Indigenous population to be addressed with an apology and with movement on truth and reconciliation," said Thompson.
"You could feel the energy and that's how it started and the momentum has kept rolling," he added.
They've hired external consultant Dr. Tapo Chimbganda to come back with recommendations on how to implement policies related to diversity and equity. She has a medical background in psychotherapy and mental health as well as a PhD in language, culture and teaching.
She's helped other hospitals with similar initiatives, including Bluewater Health in Sarnia.
"It does start with that inward work because once you work on the culture of an organization, everyone who engaged and encounters that organization experiences their culture," said Chimbganda. "Everyone experiencing that culture enjoys it, feels they belong and are protected."
The priority is to ensure the hundreds of people coming to work at HDGH each day aren't in an "environment that is not causing trauma in some shape or form," Chimbganda said. Once the internal culture is established, that will spill over to how patients are treated too, she added.
"You can't say to your patients this is a safe space when you don't feel safe yourself," Chimbganda said.
Recruitment, internal policies and how patients receive care are all areas that will be impacted by the inclusivity initiative, according to HDGH president and CEO Bill Marra.
Its success will be measured by goals, targets and internal scorecards over time, he said.
His predecessor Janice Kaffer started the alliance and Marra said he wants to ensure it continues in a way that isn't simply "checking a box."
"It's a huge undertaking. It's a big responsibility, but it's one that we believe is inherent in being the institution that we are," said Marra.
Part of the process will also be to possibly identify existing procedures that were once acceptable, but now may contradict current "values and principles."
"You gotta have some courage and conviction here. The courage to look at everything and the conviction to make change," Marra added.
Eventually, voices and perspectives from the EDII alliance will be at the HDGH decision-making table and "threaded into everything we do," said Thompson. When money is being spent on improving the workplace, as an example Thompson said perhaps some of that can be used for a smudge room — an Indigenous spiritual practice.
"Things that may not come to the table without that voice there thinking in that way," said Thompson. "I think we can have a big impact."
HDGH expects it'll be about six months before new diversity and equity policies will be put into practice.
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.