Facing and fighting racism in healthcare and medical education

Today I had the privilege to be part of a national meeting, Urgent Meeting to Address Racism Experienced by Indigenous Peoples in Canada’s Health Care Systems, organized by Indigenous Services Canada. There were nearly 400 participants. This profoundly powerful meeting was precipitated by the videos of the racism during medical care experienced by Joyce Echaquan prior to her death.

What was evident from the moving testimony of the many panelists was that this racism continues every day in every jurisdiction in our healthcare and health education systems. The most compelling testimony was that of the family of Joyce Echaquan. Panelists included many Indigenous physicians, medical students, nurses, and other healthcare professions as well as Indigenous leaders. A significant number of the speakers were from Saskatchewan, including Dr. Veronica McKinney from our faculty, and Perry Bellegarde, National Chief, Assembly of First Nations.

The content of this discussion brought to mind a Harvard-Kennedy School course I just finished, Leadership and Character in Uncertain Times. From that course, one message particularly stands out in the context of today’s meeting: “Mobilizing people with history – acknowledging that people have a historically proven basis for fear and trauma is crucially important to activism. History informs and validates the sense of injustice people feel in the present.”

Many of the accounts today were profound and painful. I have been in healthcare education and care for more than 40 years and sadly I knew they are true. When I first heard the story of Brian Sinclair, I could instantly visualize him sitting in a wheelchair and abandoned in an ER waiting room. When I heard the news of Joyce Echaquan, I did not need to see this video to imagine the racism she experienced while in care. We must improve and we must acknowledge and combat racism at all levels.

The accounts of racism experienced in receiving healthcare in today’s meeting were disturbing and unacceptable. Another area of grave concern for our medical school is racism experienced in medical education. The Indigenous medical students and graduates of our Canadian medical schools describe medical school as a traumatizing experience. Today one Indigenous physician told us she has a daughter in medical school and described seeing her daughter facing the same biases and discrimination she faced.

As part of our role in Justice for Joyce and for Indigenous people here and throughout Canada I am asking every member of our college to commit to anti-racism.