The Current

'It has eaten a hole in my heart': Indigenous nurses call out systemic racism with life-or-death consequences

Two Indigenous nurses confront racism on the front-lines, not only by witnessing the discrimination but experiencing it themselves.
Host Piya Chattopadhyay speaks to nurse Tania Dick, a member of the Dzawada'enuxw First Nations of Kingcome Inlet, and Diane Lingren, a Metis nurse and the provincial chair for the Aboriginal leadership Caucus of the BC Nurses Union. (Wendy D Photography)
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Originally published March 2, 2018.

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A hospital or doctor's office is supposed to be a place of healing. But for many Indigenous people in Canada, it's yet another place where they may fall prey to institutionalized discrimination.

Now, Indigenous caregivers are working to fight against the stereotypes and racism that exists inside the health-care system – which, as history has shown, can have dire life-or-death consequences for marginalized peoples.

"It has eaten a hole in my heart. It makes me cry regularly," said Diane Lingren, provincial chair for the aboriginal leadership caucus for the B.C. Nurses Union.

At a special town hall in Vancouver for The Current, she described seeing a vast discrepancy in how people of different backgrounds are treated in a healthcare facility.

A non-Indigenous person who appears to be intoxicated is "given good, told to settle down and then they get a cab ride" to an overnight shelter, she told host Piya Chattopadhyay.
Brian Sinclair, 45, was found dead in Winnipeg's Health Sciences Centre ER, 34 hours after arriving without being treated. (Maurice Bruneau/Submitted by family)

"With Indigenous people, I see the RCMP called…. I see them handcuff their ankles to their wrists so they can't walk. I see those people get taken away in the police cars."

Tania Dick, president of the Association of Registered Nurses of British Columbia, is too often reminded of cases like that of Brian Sinclair, who died in a hospital emergency room in 2008 after waiting, unattended, for 36 hours.

Dick's family has, as she calls it, "a Brian Sinclair story" of their own, when her aunt was taken to an emergency room after falling in her bathroom. She had fallen and hit her head, and was staggered and confused as a result. The doctors thought she was intoxicated.

"This happened over about 18 hours. She didn't progress to a higher level of care. Her head injury increased, and she died as a result of it."

'A preventable death': Tania Dick talks about her family's 'Brian Sinclair' story 1:14

When asked about incidents of discrimination such as those Dick and Lingren recalled, the Interior Health Authority in B.C. told The Current: "Concerns raised about the treatment and experiences of Aboriginal patients and staff are taken very seriously. There are no clinical practices or policies at Interior Health which are based on race or ethnicity.

"Involving the RCMP and situations in emergency departments is a last resort."

False assumptions

Lingren told the town hall audience that sometimes the systemic discrimination had seeped into the health care system so much that some of the doctors she's encountered professed that they were taught outright falsehoods about Indigenous people.

I've been called a Windian — a white Indian. Or white-eyes, or whitey.- Diane Lingren 

She recalled two doctors who have instructed nurses in their surgical unit to give Indigenous patients a lower level of narcotics for surgeries because they allegedly had different pain receptors.

When asked about this misconception, the College of Physicians and Surgeons of British Columbia told The Current: "The College has never received a complaint or even heard anecdotally that a physician didn't medicate an Indigenous patient appropriately based on a belief that she or he feels less pain than a non-Indigenous patient."

"Denying such care would be completely inappropriate and may lead to allegations of discrimination which would be carefully investigated," it added.

"I would like to acknowledge the territory that they're on and to do their best to educate themselves." 1:12


'Mom, you're going to get shot one day'

Lingren said she often directly attends to Indigenous patients when she's on her shift, filing reports if she sees other neglecting Indigenous patients in their care. She says she's gotten backlash for it.

"I've had really supportive doctors that have come to my aid and really stood by me, thankfully. But then I get these little meetings that I'm called into. And I'm told that I should probably be careful that people that like to dig for things get in trouble," Lingren said.

"It's an immense amount of pressure," she says of speaking up.

"My youngest son said to me when he was about 12 or 13 years old, he said, 'Mom, you're going to get shot one day'" because of her advocacy, she recalled. "It's pretty brutal. Just because I stuck up for somebody."

B.C. Nurses Union's Diane Lingren on Indigenous people and health care 1:27


'They're excited to see one of their own'

According to Lingren and Dick, the situation is slowly improving — in many ways thanks to people like them being able to become health care professionals themselves and bridge gaps between communities in Canada that have historically been divided by a vast power differential.

Dick recalled the unleashed joy that Indigenous patients have when they see her answer the all in the emergency room.

"When they saw my face, they were literally jumping up and down outside the door," she said.

"Because as terrible as it is, they're just excited to see this brown face. They're excited to see one of their own and that they weren't going to have to deal with or experience what they were afraid they were going to deal with when they walked into the door."

Lingren says the fight to break down institutionalized discrimination is ongoing. But she hopes to be able to challenge and shatter stereotypes whenever she can.

"I've been called a Windian — a white Indian. Or white-eyes, or whitey" because of her Metis heritage, she said. "I've had managers saying, 'Well, what are you?' And it's a rhetorical question.

"I say, 'Well, what are you?' I'm a nurse."

Listen to the full conversation at the top of this page, where you can also share this article across email, Facebook, Twitter and other platforms.


The Vancouver town hall event was produced by The Current's Yamri Taddese, Pacinthe Mattar and Ruby Buiza.