An office that will investigate racism against First Nations people within the health-care system is being set up in Saskatchewan.
The First Nations Health Ombudsperson’s Office is federally funded and will be established by the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations (FSIN). Bobby Cameron, the FSIN chief, and Patty Hajdu, the federal minister of Indigenous Services, announced the initiative on Tuesday.
The office is meant to be a safe place where First Nations people can bring discrimination complaints.
FSIN Vice-Chief David Pratt hopes the office will become a “beacon of light” for people hesitant to seek medical treatment and care because of racism.
“It’s unfortunate that we need watchdogs like this, but to those nurses, doctors or other medical professionals who think less of First Nations people — I just want to put them on notice that we’re going to be watching them,” Pratt said.
The office is the first of its kind in Canada and has been years in the making.
“Our chiefs mandated us with this work back in 2017 because of the number of reports they received on discrimination from our people within the health-care system,” he said. “We’ve heard a number of horror stories, people being treated terribly, racially profiled, just the worst type of treatment you could think of [by] people who are entrusted with the person’s well-being and overall physical health.”
First Nations people have been denied care or been mistreated, but there hasn’t been anywhere to handle these specific complaints, Pratt said.
He noted the death of Joyce Echaquan, a mother who died on Sept. 28, 2020, at a hospital north of Montreal, moments after she recorded footage of herself as health-care staff hurled racist remarks at her. The incident went public and prompted sweeping calls for the province and country to recognize systemic racism within institutions.
“We think of all of our people here within the emergency rooms who didn’t record … how they were treated,” he said. “But nonetheless, their stories are still true.”
The office will investigate complaints and elevate concerns in order to make change within the system, Pratt said, adding this will ensure treaty rights to healthcare are upheld.
“There has been a long history of negative, and sometimes tragic, interactions between First Nations people and health-care providers or hospitals,” FSIN Chief Cameron said in a statement. The office “will make sure that our people have someone to turn to when they feel discriminated against, or when they need help, advocacy, or simply, cultural understanding and assistance.”
Indigenous Service Canada is providing $1.17 million to the FSIN to establish the office and plans to provide more money in the coming two years, although that amount has not yet been confirmed.
Indigenous Services Minister Hajdu expects the ombudsperson to work closely with provincial institutions, First Nations partners and the federal government to determine what actions need to come next.
Taking racism seriously
She said health-care providers must take the reports of racism seriously enough to create strong systemic measures to end it. Hajdu is also hopeful this third party system will support people facing those challenges.
Hajdu said that when she was working at a homeless shelter in Thunder Bay, Ont., — before she was a politician — she saw how hard it was for people who are treated differently, because of their race, to seek care.
“There’s a high degree of shame in those experiences, but there’s also a sense of futility by people who have experienced it, in some cases, most of their life,” she said. “Often there is also fear, fear that if they complain about the care they’re receiving, that it will be even harder for them or their family to receive care afterwards.”
Pratt said they will formalize the office and its board within the next few months and hope to have it running within six months to one year.