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Motion 11 - Call to adopt anti-racism as the sixth pillar of the Canada Health Act

Honourable senators, I rise today to speak to my Motion No. 11, which asks that the Senate of Canada call on the federal government to adopt anti-racism as the sixth pillar of the Canada Health Act.

This request for the sixth pillar comes from several sources across Canada, and I’m speaking on their behalf. This appeal first came to my attention through an open letter addressed to many people, including myself, from Josée G. Lavoie, Professor at the University of Manitoba; Mary Jane Logan McCallum, Professor at the University of Winnipeg; Annette J. Browne, Professor at the University of British Columbia; and Emily Hill, Senior Staff Lawyer, Aboriginal Legal Services.

The Brian Sinclair Working Group was led by Dr. Barry Lavallee and included the aforementioned individuals. This group was formed in response to Brian Sinclair’s death in the emergency room of a Winnipeg hospital, as well as the questions this raised for health care, the justice system, Indigenous People and the province of Manitoba. In the book, Structures of Indifference: An Indigenous Life and Death in a Canadian City, by Mary Jane Logan McCallum and Adele Perry, they state at page 1:

At the core of this story are thirty-four hours that passed in September 2008. During that day and a half, Brian Sinclair, a middle-aged, non-status Anishinaabe resident of Winnipeg, Manitoba’s capital city, wheeled himself into the emergency room of the Health Sciences Centre (HSC), the city’s major downtown hospital, was left untreated and unattended to, and ultimately passed away from an easily treatable infection. This, we argue, reflects a particular structure of indifference born of and maintained by colonialism, and one that can best be understood by situating this particular Indigenous life and death within their historical context.

They continue:

. . . this archive reflects the precarious position of Indigenous people with respect to Canadian health care and justice, and how problematic this is for the care with which cases involving untimely deaths of Indigenous people are handled. . . . we find that the inquest served to obscure the violence of colonialism . . .

Colleagues, for those who experience racism, it is exhausting to repeatedly state that racism exists in Canada. For Canadians who have never experienced racism, whether systemically or via personal affront, it is easy to deny its existence and thus be difficult for some to understand. For others, it remains a regular practice in their lives as is evident in the cases of Brian Sinclair and Joyce Echaquan.

For Indigenous peoples and people of colour, the threat of racism is always there. As I was preparing a presentation on racism to students at the Faculty of Law at the University of Manitoba, I realized I had never lived a day without the thought of racism popping into my head. Will I meet it in the street, the store, the plane, the hospital or in the Senate today? Will I see it in the eyes, the mouth, the body language? Sometimes we say to ourselves, “Not my day today,” knowing that although we did not experience racism that day, many other First Nations, Métis, Inuit and people of colour will have. It is egregious when one knows, “It’s my day today,” but does not know whether today’s act of racism will result in one’s death.

It is unconscionable that some people feel they have the right to take the life of an Indigenous person or another person of colour, doing so openly and without fear of repercussions, all because of skin colour.

In his book entitled The Skin We’re In: A Year of Black Resistance and Power by Desmond Cole, he states:

It has taken me most of my life to even grasp the connection between my struggle as a Black Canadian and the struggle of Indigenous peoples on these stolen territories.

He goes on to say:

British Imperialism, which led to the colonization of both Canada and Sierra Leone, produced me, and informed the stories I’m about to share with you. So when I talk about Black and Indigenous solidarity as necessary for our future survival —

 — and the whole world —

— I’m not speaking in metaphors. I’m asking us to honour the history and struggles of our ancestors as we grapple with the aftermath.

For many of us, as Black and Indigenous collectives, it has taken most of our adult lives to embrace our skins, our ancestry and this struggle against racism.

Honourable senators, when a society is racist, racists can assume a power that, within a just society, would not be theirs. Those who are the targets of racism see it for its clear pathology — though such clarity has historically not been enough. Little children knew it when they ran away from residential schools. Mothers knew it when their children were torn from their arms. Young men knew the system was against them when police officers sent them walking along frozen highways in the middle of the night. Brian Sinclair knew it when he sat patiently in the emergency waiting room, overlooked again and again until his death.

What of the many, many missing and murdered women? Are they not women as we are, each and every one of us women? Are they not deserving of protection? How many of them would have been saved had our institutions been available, open and understanding of their struggles?

One truth we know is that racism goes across all Canadian institutions. In his book Racial and Ethnic Policies in Canada, author Gurcharn S. Basran states:

Racism has been practised systematically by the Canadian government and people in general from the very beginning of Canadian history. . . . It has been institutionalized throughout our history. It has been directed mainly against non-white populations in Canada.

At page 11, he states:

Racism is not random, unique or idiosyncratic behaviour on the part of individuals. It is systematically developed, diffused and used to meet the needs and interests of certain groups in Canadian society. Institutional racism is an important part of Canadian history and is closely related to our system of production, distribution, and control of economic resources. In other words, racism is an important part of our economic structure and political reality.

Honourable senators, in the 2019 final report into the Public Inquiry Commission on relations between Indigenous Peoples and certain public services in Québec: Listening, reconciliation and progress, Commissioner Jacques Viens states that it is “impossible to deny” Indigenous people in Quebec are victims of “systemic discrimination” in accessing public services. He said improvements are needed across the spectrum, including in policing, social services, corrections, justice, youth protection, mental health services and school curriculum to properly reflect the history of First Nations and Inuit in the province.

About this report, Quebec Premier François Legault stated:

There are many worrisome things in the report and we need to change the way we provide services to Indigenous people in Quebec.

Although this report is specific to Quebec, its findings are certainly applicable to all corners of Canada.

Honourable senators, more recently, the events of September 28, 2020, which ultimately took the life of Joyce Echaquan, are not new. Ms. Echaquan, an Indigenous woman, mother of seven, member of the Atikamekw community of Manawan, died on that day, strapped to a hospital bed, pleading to her nurses for help as they made racist remarks and ridiculed her. It is not enough that atrocities of racism in our country exist, but that they exist within the very institutions that were meant to heal peoples, not kill them, is appalling.

Ms. Echaquan was a victim of interpersonal violence. She died begging Canadian health care workers to do for her what they were trained and paid to do. More so, she died of systemic violence. She died in the care of people who were located within a space that allowed such behaviours to continue unabated.

With racism, there is nowhere else to go. Hospitals staffed by racist people are hospitals nonetheless. Indigenous men, women and children go to them for help knowing all along that these institutions do not value them. Joyce Echaquan went to the hospital knowing that she would not be treated well. She went in that final time, her family said, saying they were horrible to her in there. “One day, they will kill me in there,” she said.

Colleagues, the Canada Health Act lists the conditions that provincial and territorial health insurance plans must respect in order to receive federal cash contributions. The five conditions that deliver insured services include public administration, accessibility, comprehensiveness, universality and portability.

Comprehensiveness is defined broadly to include medically necessary services “. . . for the purpose of maintaining health, preventing disease or diagnosing or treating an injury, illness or disability . . . .” How can comprehensiveness and racism exist simultaneously?

Universality means that provincial and territorial insurance programs must insure Canadians for all medically necessary hospital and physician care. Are there then two types of universality, one treatment for one group and another lesser treatment for others? Does public accountability for the funds spent for insured services take into account the differential and unequal treatment of different groups of people? How can health care be accessible and universal when people are afraid to go to the health centres because of racism?

In order to right these wrongs done in the name of the Canada Health Act, institutional racism must be addressed. Instead of looking at skin colour as a deficit, Canadians need to look at the unique histories, realities and struggles of Indigenous peoples, Blacks and other people of colour, so they do not continue to be pushed out of the dominant systems, whether it be health, justice, education, economics, et cetera.

Honourable senators, concerted action at the highest level of influence and authority in Canada is required to disrupt institutional racism in the Canadian health care system. As members of the Senate, it is our moral and legal obligation to stand and to act in supporting the fight against racism.

Imagine Joyce Echaquan, during her immense suffering, finding the strength to hold out her phone. What was the story she was trying to convey through the phone? She refused to be a victim. She was strapped to the bed, but her soul and spirit were standing tall. She was a catalyst for change. She didn’t want others to continue to go through what she did. As a woman, I’m certain her last thoughts were with her family, especially her children. Women have always fought for a better future for their children. She was no different. She has paved our way.

I urge you, colleagues, to join me in support of this motion. Thank you.

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