VICTORIA (NEWS 1130) — The head of an investigation into racism in the B.C. healthcare system is offering privacy protection to those who fear coming forward to speak about it.
Since starting her investigation last month, Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond said Thursday that she has already heard of incidents of racism in every health region in B.C.
“And there are specific incidents and specific emergency rooms, not only with the issue of games around intoxication,” she said as the province announced a new survey and phone number to aid in the investigation and encourage people to share their stories.
“I know historically this has been one of the biggest obstacles, so I’m hoping that can be overcome.”
The investigation was launched by the province last month after allegations surfaced of hospital emergency room staff playing a game, guessing the blood-alcohol levels of patients, particularly Indigenous people.
Indigenous health leaders then called for a public inquiry and changes to the healthcare system, including sensitivity training.
Independent investigator appointed to examine allegations of #BC hospital staff playing a racist game says no doubt racism exists, but Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond says her review is now in stage 1 and this is not about blame or shame. #bcpoli @NEWS1130
— Marcella Bernardo (@Bernardo1130) July 9, 2020
Turpel-Lafond, the former B.C. child and youth advocate who is a lawyer and former judge, was appointed to investigate and make recommendations about immediate and long-term next steps regarding the allegations.
She has since assembled a small team, which has begun mapping out the investigation.
“I have to say today that this investigation is not trying to determine whether racism exists in B.C.’s healthcare system. It does exist, just as it does in every aspect of Canadian society,” said Turpel-Lafond, who is also director of the residential school history and dialogue Center at the University of B.C.
“We want to gauge through this investigation and this process the range and extent of that racism, both individual and systemic, and how it affects the quality of health care for Indigenous peoples in this province.”
She said the issue of racism in the healthcare system is an urgent concern and that the review will be conducted in stages.
“Our investigation will no doubt uncover some difficult truths, but ultimately it’s about building up the confidence of Indigenous peoples in B.C.’s healthcare system, and to ensure that they will feel safe, and that they are treated appropriately, respectfully, with dignity, equality, and fundamental respect for their human rights,” Turpel-Lafond added.
“However, I also want to caution that the investigation is not about blaming and shaming. Blaming and shaming is something that Indigenous people have experienced and we certainly are not in a position where we want to reflect that back. That’s not a healing process. That’s not a truth-telling process. It is about truth-telling and it’s about doing the investigation and presenting an accurate report on the state of anti-Indigenous racism in the B.C. healthcare system.”
However, she said if violations of health standards or the Criminal Code uncovered, they will be reported to the appropriate authorities.
She says, if she finds evidence of wrongdoing and inappropriate behaviour, she will report that to authorities. Turpel-Lafond says ultimate goal is to ensure all indigenous people are treated with respect. No findings reported today. #bcpoli @NEWS1130
— Marcella Bernardo (@Bernardo1130) July 9, 2020
“Our investigation will no doubt uncover some difficult truths. But, ultimately, it’s about building up the confidence region its people and B.C.’s healthcare system, and to ensure that they will feel safe, and that they are treated appropriately, respectfully, with dignity, equality, and fundamental respect for their human rights.”
Turpel-Lafond said, as part of the investigation, countless phone calls and emails have been received from people sharing their stories. They have revealed two kinds of racist behaviours, those who engage or watch.
“Racism does not need bystanders,” she added.
She also said workplace stress is not an appropriate excuse for racist behaviour.
“I think it is very important to send a clear message that that is not a healthy and appropriate way to behave. I am very mindful of the fact that emergency rooms and hospitals are stressful places. They’re crisis-driven places. And I understand that there’s a need for support. But that kind of support is not at the expense of demeaning or playing a game about the patients that are coming in and particularly when it comes to Indigenous peoples, making games or demeaning comments about intoxication addictions and so forth. These are very, very significant matters and they must end if they are happening.”
Turpel-Lafond said it appears such behaviors might have been present for a long time, but it is time for them to start.
“I want to assure all Indigenous people that you are safe to share the story with myself, my team. It will be treated with the utmost confidence and respect, is independent from the government. There will be no retaliation or recrimination to anyone that does that. You will be supported,” she said.
“And in the same vein, anyone working in the healthcare system needs to share their experience and story with what they may have been a bystander to, or are participated in, I encourage you to share that information, you will face no recrimination in your workplace for doing that, and you have my sincere pledge on that. That’s a very strong stand and the minister of health has also affirmed that.”
Turpel-Lafond acknowledged B.C. has not yet approved whistleblower protection legislation. However, she said individuals in the healthcare system have her assurance that they can speak to her.
“We have to root out anti-Indigenous racism,” she added. “I will be very disappointed if when I released an initial report I say to you, I had no engagement with physicians in British Columbia, for their emergency room or real physicians I had no engagement with nurses, and others.”
Turpel-Lafond expects a preliminary report will be completed in a matter of months.