Indigenous peoples are not new to being subjected to racism in Saskatchewan. However, it becomes even more unjust when they are denied proper care in their weakest state by the healthcare workers who have supposedly vowed to do no harm.
As part of the country’s efforts to address racism in Saskatchewan, the First Nations Health Ombudsperson’s Office was created. This aims to specifically decrease barriers to the access of First Nations people to healthcare services. They can turn to the office if they experience any act of discrimination against them in healthcare settings.
It will be the very first office of such a nature in the whole country.
What Does “First Nations” in Canada Mean?
First Nations is a general term that refers to all of the indigenous peoples in Canada. However, this term excludes those who belong to the Métis or Inuit groups.
Indigenous peoples were the first ones to step foot and inhabit Canada. However, when colonizers took over the land, many of the practices, traditions, and culture of the indigenous people had to be removed from the spotlight. They were forced to live the lifestyle that was imposed upon them. Apart from that, the resources of the land were seized by the people who took all the power.
They did not have access to sustenance and, at the same time, were unjustly treated because of their race. As a result, their health and socio-economic conditions declined. Discrimination against First Nations people is still happening to this day.
First Nations Health Ombudsperson’s Office
Efforts to establish the First Nations Health Ombudsperson’s Office started five years ago. This was done as a response to the numerous reports that the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations (FSIN) has been receiving.
These complaints were about healthcare workers racially profiling and mistreating First Nations people. The professionals who were supposed to take care of citizens were acting in the opposite manner of what they should be doing. Even if it sounds contradictory, such cases do happen.
David Pratt, the Vice-Chief of FSIN, said that “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.”
The office will be responsible for handling complaints from Indigenous people regarding mistreatment in healthcare institutions. Investigations will be conducted should such cases be triggered. This will ensure First Nations people that they will not be left alone in the face of unjust treatment. It gives them space to make their voices heard. At the same time, individuals in the healthcare sector who are proven to engage in misbehavior will be held accountable for their actions.
But, it will not just end with resolving complaints. They also plan to make changes to the healthcare system so that it becomes more equitable for indigenous people.
Bobby Cameron, the Chief of the FSIN, said that “this is a positive step forward and we are proud of the hard work that has taken place to ensure this important initiative is available to our First Nations people in the province. There has been a long history of negative, and sometimes tragic, interactions between First Nations people and health care providers or hospitals. The First Nation Health Ombudsperson’s 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.”
The office will be funded by the federal government and will be established by the FSIN. At the same time, $1.17 million was given by Indigenous Services Canada in support of creating a more inclusive healthcare system and ending racism in Saskatchewan.
Experiences of Racism in Saskatchewan Cost People Their Lives
Samwel Uko was a 20-year-old young man who used to play for the football team at the University of Saskatchewan. He died in 2020 of what was believed to be suicide. However, events leading to his untimely death showed the shortcomings of the healthcare system.
Initially, Uko went to the Regina General Hospital on the morning of May 21, 2020. He complained of difficulty falling asleep because of the chronic pain he experienced as a result of a car accident that had occurred previously. At the same time, he said that he was suffering from depression.
He told the healthcare workers at the hospital that he did not have any suicidal thoughts. Because of this, the staff found no reason to admit him to the hospital. Rather, he was medically cleared to return home. He was given medication for his pain and referred to a mental health clinic nearby. Should he experience a mental health crisis, he was advised to contact the relevant authorities and come back to the hospital for appropriate treatment. He then went home with these instructions.
A couple of hours later, Uko called 911 because he was experiencing a mental health crisis. The police responded by bringing him to the hospital. However, while he was in the healthcare institution, he refused to give his name. Since he could not be properly identified by the staff, he was escorted out by the police.
But, instead of going home, Uko walked straight into Wascana Lake. His body was found in the evening by a search and rescue team. It was too late by then.
Months after this unfortunate incident, the Saskatchewan Health Authority (SHA) apologized for failing to prevent it from occurring. They said that Uko was not given the appropriate treatment at the right time. Instead, too much time was wasted trying to establish his identity. This time should have been used to give him the care he needed.
The SHA also created the “Quality Improvement Plan” so that the healthcare system can become more responsive to patients needing urgent care. This improves the framework within which healthcare workers should act in similar situations. It removes any gray areas that could possibly delay the provision of treatment.
This is just one incident among the many more that people of a different race experience.
First Nations People Should be Heard
More often than not, indigenous people are discouraged from reporting instances of racism in Saskatchewan because they think that it will all come to naught. Even if they do report it, they feel as if nothing good will come out of it. They also feel that doing so could put them and their loved ones at risk of retaliation from healthcare workers. This will make it even more difficult for them to receive healthcare services.
However, with the creation of this office, it is hoped that First Nations people will not be afraid to voice their concerns. There will be someone to listen to them and take action so that they can be treated equitably by the professionals who are supposed to care for them.