When people hear the word “health”, most tend to think of fitness, nutrition, well-being, and maybe even spirituality. For others, health might mean conquering physical injuries and disease, addressing mental illness or work-life balance. The word health is also associated with medical and pharmaceutical research, the rising costs of healthcare services, and the merits of traditional medicine versus naturopathic medicine. What most Canadians don’t have to think about is the impact of racism on their health and well-being. Yet, for Indigenous peoples, racism kills. Despite living in the same territory, with the same basic rights and entitlements to health services, Indigenous peoples live 7 – 20 years less than Canadians. This is one of the most urgent issues in Indigenous health today.
Researchers have long known the socio-economic impacts on overall health. If First Nations lack access to clean water, healthy food, safe housing and adequate health care services, their risks of disease, illness and injury are increased. Fifty percent of all kids in foster care are Indigenous, and the federal government’s own internal documents admit that it is in large part due to under-funding of child and family services. First Nations children have lower educational achievement levels due to the discriminatory under-funding of education. Many Indigenous peoples are homeless or live in over-crowded housing due to discriminatory decisions by government.
However, some racism is harder to identify as it hides in laws, policies and the subjective decision-making of doctors, nurses and social workers. Brian Sinclair, a double amputee, died of a treatable infection because doctors and nurses ignored him for over 34 hours in the hospital waiting room, despite people advocating on his behalf. Frank Paul died of hypothermia because police dragged him into an alley and left him there to freeze to death. Tina Fontaine, a child in foster care, was found murdered because police officers refused to bring this little girl back to safety after finding her in the care of an older man alone late at night. Phoenix Sinclair was dead for over 9 months from the abuse of her mom and step-dad before any of the 27 social workers involved in her case even noticed.
Sadly, even those meant to protect us, like judges, lawyers and police officers, are equally vicious in their racist treatment of Indigenous peoples. Former provincial court judge, David Ramsay, pleaded guilty to raping and assaulting Indigenous girls as young as 12 years old. Human Rights Watch detailed numerous reports of RCMP officers raping and assaulting Indigenous women. RCMP Constable Kevin Theriault lost a week’s pay for taking an Indigenous woman home to engage in “relations” after having first detained, arrested, and imprisoned her. Donald Marshall, JJ Harper, Helen Betty Osborne – there are too many examples to suggest these are exceptions.
One way for us as Indigenous peoples to address this threat to our people is to take control of the issue, shine a light on these dark places and force change. One of the best ways to do that is to encourage one another to report every lethal or violent, racist act committed against our people by municipal, provincial, territorial and federal government institutions including social workers, healthcare workers and law enforcement officials. Whether it is information about an Indigenous man beaten in police custody or an Indigenous girl assaulted by a judge – the more we inform inquiries, investigations and ourselves, the better able we will be to help prevent it in the future.
Racism runs deep in every government, law and institution in this country and until it is fully exposed and addressed it will continue to impact the health and well-being of Indigenous peoples. We all have a basic human right to live healthy, happy lives together with our friends, families, and communities. That can’t happen until we admit that racism is not a colonial legacy of the past, but is as deadly now as it ever was.
Pamela Palmater is a Mi’kmaw lawyer from Eel River Bar First Nation in northern New Brunswick. She is an author, social justice activist and expert in Indigenous law and governance. She currently holds the position of Associate Professor and Chair in Indigenous Governance at Ryerson University in Toronto.