Little progress on northern Manitoba health region’s vow to address racism in care: First Nations groups

Seven months after the head of northern Manitoba’s health-care system apologized for historic and continuing racism against Indigenous people seeking medical care and promised change, First Nations leaders say they’re concerned by the lack of progress.

Last September, the Northern Health Region forged a partnership with two advocacy agencies — Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak, which represents northern Manitoba First Nations, and Keewatinohk Inniniw Minoayawin, an organization that advocates for the wellness of Indigenous people in the north.

The health authority vowed to eradicate all forms of racism toward Indigenous people within northern Manitoba’s health-care system.

But Dr. Barry Lavallee, the chief executive officer of KIM, says the health region is dismissive of the advocacy organization’s ideas and leaves it out of decision making.

Part of his disappointment stems from the lack of input his organization and MKO had in hiring a new head of the health region, in spite of the fact Indigenous people make up more than half of the population in the region.

An non-Indigenous person was hired in that role. As well, Lavallee said he believes the 11-person board of the Northern Regional Health Authority has only one member who identifies as Indigenous.

“The power structures within the board of directors are asymmetrical, and that is non-Indigenous people who are controlling it, who may or may not have any idea of the contextualization and the challenges that First Nations people undergo daily,” Lavallee said in an interview on Thursday.

A bald man in a navy jacket with vertical black and grey stripes folds his hands as he speaks at a news conference. He's pictured behind microphones and against a quilted backdrop that's yellow, white, red and black.
Dr. Barry Lavallee, the medical advisor for the health advoacy organization Keewatinohk Inniniw Minoayawin, says his agency will call for a third party to review emergency and trauma services in the north. (Gary Solilak/CBC)

An Northern Regional Health Authority spokesperson says the provincial government is responsible for appointing board members, but didn’t speak to their identities.

They added that the new CEO’s onboarding will include engaging with First Nations and community partners.

Account of racism prompted laughter: Lavallee

Lavallee’s organization and MKO issued a press release expressing their frustrations on Thursday, saying the last straw came at a March 6 meeting between the First Nations groups and the board of the health region.

A health region representative reportedly laughed at a chief who, while explaining how health care decisions rooted in racism cause harm, recounted how his relative died in agony after not getting appropriate treatment at a Manitoba hospital several years ago, according to Lavallee.

“This is unacceptable behaviour and is really an example of racism exhibited at the highest level by a system lead,” Lavallee said.

A health region spokesperson said in an email Thursday they were not aware of such an incident but will be following up with both agencies, adding such behaviour is not condoned.

Lavallee says the First Nations organizations are not just worried about racist slurs and assumptions made about patients in hospitals and clinics, but about health-care decisions that have the potential to cause death or disability.

“What are the structures inside there that make it permissive to have Indigenous people harmed in such an environment, with nothing to fall back on to support that person?” he said.

Lavallee says his agency will call for a third party to review emergency and trauma services in the north, with the aim of creating a system where First Nations groups have more control over health care.

Pimicikamak Cree Nation Chief David Monias says people from his northern community continue to experience racism in their health-care experiences, even after the partnership with the health region was formed last fall.

A man with grey hair wearing glasses and a blue shirt is pictured against a white wall.
Pimicikamak Cree Nation Chief David Monias says he wants to see action on the health region’s commitment to anti-racism. (Zoom)

“They feel like they’re still being discriminated [against]. They don’t feel like they are being treated right,” he said in a Thursday interview.

Since the partnership was formed, a teenage girl from the Pimicikamak, also known as Cross Lake, died in a Winnipeg intensive care unit after she was turned away from Thompson General Hospital twice, Monias said.

Lavallee says he’s aware of that incident, but is limited in what he can say. KIM is currently writing a report on it with the girl’s family, he said.

The health region spokesperson says the organization remains committed to its partnership with the First Nations groups, but doesn’t believe that anti-racism change is an overnight process.

“We continue to move forward seeking solutions to improve the health outcomes of all of our citizens. Indigenous northerners deserve equitable, respectful delivery of health services and we will strive to make that a reality in the [Northern Regional Health Authority],” the email said.

But Monias says actions speak louder than words, and First Nations groups need to have more say in the health region’s decisions.

“You need to show it.… Don’t just talk about it. Don’t just announce it. You have to practise it.”