Alcohol level guessing 'game' played widely, does not target any specific ethnicity, says paramedic

A veteran paramedic in British Columbia says a guess-the-alcohol-level "game" that is now the focus of an investigation into systemic racism in the health-care system has been played for years by front-line emergency room medical staff throughout the province. 

Tsartlip First Nation Chief Don Tom says there is no excuse for the practice

A B.C. paramedic says front-line medical staff have always played an informal 'game' guessing alcohol level of emergency room patients. (Maggie Macpherson/CBC)

A veteran paramedic in British Columbia says a guess-the-alcohol-level "game" that is now the focus of an investigation into systemic racism in the health-care system has been played for years by front-line emergency room medical staff throughout the province. 

B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix appointed former judge Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond on June 19 to investigate allegations that the game was being played by emergency room medical staff and targeting Indigenous patients. 

It's alleged that emergency room medical staff called the game "The Price is Right" and doctors and nurses would try to guess the blood-alcohol level of incoming patients they presumed to be Indigenous as closely as they could, without going over.

CBC News is withholding the paramedic's name over concerns that naming them could endanger their employment.

The paramedic, who has worked in both rural and urban settings in the province and is a member of a minority community, said the game does not target any particular ethnicity or nationality.

"It's targeting drunks," said the paramedic.

The paramedic said they first encountered the game on the third shift of their career while in a remote part of B.C. responding to a call involving an inebriated elderly white man. 

"This is something that is done, it's always been done, and after the dust settles, whenever the dust settles after this, it will continue to be done. It's not a racist thing," said the paramedic.

'We are guessing a lab value'

The paramedic said in their experience the game was played informally. For example, a patient would be brought in on the ambulance, and the paramedic and receiving nurse would then each guess the presumed alcohol level. When the paramedic returned on another call, the two would see which one was closest, said the paramedic. 

The paramedic described the practice as a type of dark humour, a way to blow off steam for people working in a high intensity environment that constantly deals with trauma. The paramedic said they've been through counselling, therapy and used antidepressant medication to deal with the impacts of the job. 

"We are guessing a lab value and it has nothing to do with who they are other than their ethanol level has increased," said the paramedic. 

"They could be the richest person in the world, they could be the poorest, it's a fact they have an increased ethanol level."

The paramedic said racism does exist in the province's health care system. The paramedic said they had faced racial insults that were ignored by management in the past. 

"If I thought it was a racist thing, I would be pretty pissed off," said the paramedic. 

The paramedic said the issue is currently being widely discussed by paramedics, firefighters, police officers and emergency nurses and doctors. 

The paramedic said they would be willing to be interviewed by Turpel-Lafond as part of her investigation. 

'This is systemic racism'

Daniel Fontaine, chief executive officer of the Métis Nation of British Columbia, brought the allegation to Dix. It first surfaced during an Indigenous cultural safety training workshop run by the Provincial Health Services Authority.

Fontaine said the allegation came from a health-care worker who witnessed the game being played in an emergency room and that it targeted Indigenous people. 

"And it's counter to what this paramedic is saying," he said.

Since the allegations surfaced, he said he's received numerous tips outing regions and hospitals where similar games were also allegedly played, said Fontaine. 

"I don't see it as a rationale for any jurisdiction to be playing games with people requiring assistance," he said.

"I don't think it's appropriate to justify it."

A hospital named in the allegation, the Saanich Peninsula Hospital on Vancouver Island, is on the traditional territory of Tsartlip First Nation.   

Tsartlip First Nation Chief Don Tom said he sees no excuse for the activity.

"When our members go out to receive health care, it needs to be done professionally… I don't think it's a matter that it's OK so long as it's done to everybody," said Tom.

"This is systemic racism.... The fact is that First Nations people already have a reluctance to seek treatment at the hospital, whether that is based on the history of Indian hospitals or based on colonization and mistrust. When First Nations, Canadians, B.C.'ers go to the hospital ... they should not fear discrimination against them."

B.C. Emergency Health Services said in an emailed statement that "out of respect for the investigation" the agency would not provide comment. 

The Doctors of B.C. organization said in a statement that it was not "aware of this 'game' being played in some of our emergency departments" until Dix's announcement. 

"It is not an activity that Doctors of B.C. would condone for any patients coming into the [emergency department] for treatment," said the organization in the emailed statement.

"We support our physicians in the delivery of the highest standards of health care for all British Columbians."

B.C.'s Health Ministry said it had no further comment on the issue.


Jorge Barrera is a Caracas-born, award-winning journalist who has worked across the country and internationally. He works for CBC's Indigenous unit based out of Ottawa. Follow him on Twitter @JorgeBarrera or email him