Health News

St. Paul’s Indigenous health liaison workers say racism, lack of support a daily reality

Rose McDonald: ‘The truth is there were a lot of horrific things that I witnessed and experienced while I was working there.’ (Photo submitted.)

By Moira Wyton, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter/The Tyee

Almost a month after Vancouver’s St. Paul’s Hospital eliminated an Indigenous health and wellness team, three of the  terminated workers are speaking out about lack of support from hospital  leadership and anti-Indigenous racism they witnessed and experienced.

All four Indigenous health  and wellness worker positions were cut in November, with the jobs ending  Jan. 13. The hospital says it is restructuring and expanding the  program.

The three workers interviewed by The Tyee,  with a combined experience at the hospital of more than a decade, said  they routinely ran into obstacles when they tried to advocate for  Indigenous patients with medical teams or raised examples of racism with  managers — both part of their job descriptions. They often feared their  jobs were in jeopardy when they spoke out.

Rebecca, one of the workers, said the racism faced by Indigenous patients was constant. (The Tyee agreed not to use her full name because of Rebecca’s concerns about future employment.)

“It’s the negligence, the  terrible bedside manner, the comments behind the scenes, the racism, the  discrimination, the ignorance, the pushing of other people’s own biases  and religious views onto our people that was unbearable,” she said.

Their stories echo the November report after an independent investigation that found anti-Indigenous racism in B.C. health care is “widespread and insidious.”

The report found the racism continued in  part because senior leaders faced little or no accountability. It also  reinforced the essential role of Indigenous health workers in creating  cultural safety for patients.

Rebecca, who is Anishinaabe, said the wellness team had to deal with racism on a daily basis.

“The systems weren’t built with racism,  they were built for racism,” she said. “So bumping and grinding up  against that every day is exhausting. There’s no amount of self-care  that you can do to take care of yourself if you don’t have support from  the top down.”

The provincial report, by former  representative for children and youth Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, found  medical professionals routinely typecast Indigenous patients as less  worthy of care for a variety of reasons. That discourages them from  seeking help and results in worse long-term health outcomes, it found.

“Everything that was shared in that report,  I witnessed in my two years working at St. Paul’s Hospital,” said Rose  McDonald, an Anishinaabe health worker.

Lavita Trimble, who is Nisga’a and has  worked at St. Paul’s for two years, said it was common to hear health  workers express harmful stereotypes about Indigenous patients or their  family members, including claims they were likely intoxicated.

“That big assumption needs to stop,” she said. “Staff needs to open their eyes and realize that’s not always the case.”

The women said they also often overheard  staff suggesting that Indigenous patients who were unhoused or  street-entrenched weren’t sick and just wanted a place to sleep or were  trying to get a prescription for drugs.

“The spectrum and the range of assumptions  is just insane,” said Rebecca. She said she saw homeless or poorly-housed  patients discharged or turned away without receiving care because the  hospital “needs the bed.”

“Our relatives come in there, really hoping  that they can get the support that they need somehow,” said Rebecca. “And  they just kick them out.”

“That often happens — the need for the bed comes before the actual care for people.”

St. Paul’s serves the downtown core area including the Downtown Eastside, where more than 80 per cent of unhoused people in Vancouver live. About 30 per cent of Downtown Eastside residents are Indigenous.

It is run by Providence Health Care, a  non-profit organization that provides services in a contracted  partnership with the Vancouver Coastal and Provincial Health Services  authorities. 

In the downtown communities hit hard by the  overdose, housing and COVID-19 crises, Indigenous people are more  likely to be unhoused or die of an overdose due to the historic and  ongoing harms of colonialism and racism.

“It’s devastating,” said Rebecca, who had  been an Indigenous health worker at St. Paul’s for nearly five years.  “And it makes you see how far the impacts of colonization have reached  through our communities, and how harmful they can be.”

All three workers said while harmful attitudes and actions were common, many non-Indigenous peers were also receptive to the learning and  un-learning required to confront racism in health care. They received  positive feedback from colleagues on other teams and felt they were  making a difference in how people approached caring for Indigenous  patients.

But in addition to an environment where racism  towards patients was common, Trimble and McDonald say they faced  multiple reprimands for advocating for Indigenous patients. McDonald  said she has felt “intimidated, bullied and harassed” by a higher-up because she was doing her job.

McDonald, whose traditional name is Miskwa  Animikii Ikwe, filed a human resources complaint about bullying by a  superior this fall. 

A three-day internal investigation found no  wrongdoing, said a Providence spokesperson. McDonald said she is  appealing the decision.

“The truth is there were a lot of horrific  things that I witnessed and experienced while I was working there,” said  McDonald. 

“I did advocate and liaise to the best of  my ability, and I could even push a little bit. I was worried about  losing my job sometimes, but… when people’s lives are at stake, then me  being fired was not even an issue.”

“Human life is more important than that. And being treated with dignity and respect is more important than that.”

On Dec. 1 the CBC reported all four positions were being cut.

The workers are Indigenous women who have  training in traditional Indigenous knowledge and healing practices. They  did everything from smudging hospital rooms with patients and their  families, to leading prayer and song, to helping families communicate  with medical teams caring for loved ones.

They said their services provided essential  cultural safety for many people whose loved ones could not be there  with them, especially during the pandemic.

“A lot of the patients that we see were  recovering from some sort of experience, either residential school,  Indian hospitals, or the ’60s Scoop,” said Lavita. “And there’s been a  severance of that connection to community, so what made us happy was to  connect someone to culture.”

Providence Health declined to provide  someone to be interviewed about the workers’ allegations or the decision  to eliminate the four positions.

Instead a spokesperson directed The Tyee to a public letter,  wherein Providence said the positions were being eliminated in order to  restructure the Indigenous health team, increase its size and align  with initial direction from the province during Turpel-Lafond’s  investigation.

“We take the immediate recommendations from  the Ministry of Health and TRC [Truth and Reconciliation] Calls to  Action very seriously, and are doing everything we can to ensure  Indigenous patients receive culturally safe experiences while receiving  our services,” read the letter.

When The Tyee asked the Health Ministry  about its directions to health authorities on the issue, a spokesperson  provided a portion of a letter sent to all health authorities in the  early fall with initial recommendations.

The letter from Health Minister Adrian Dix directs them to “promote culturally safe services for Indigenous persons.”

“Five new Indigenous Liaison positions will  be established and filled as a priority in each health authority to  provide supports to Indigenous patients with health needs,” reads the  letter. “The location, recruitment and focus for these positions will be  determined in partnership with local Indigenous representatives.”

There is no mention of new standards or  qualifications that would require Providence to eliminate the existing  Indigenous health and wellness team.

Turpel-Lafond told the CBC that she had not  ordered the changes at St. Paul’s and was looking into the  circumstances of the women’s dismissal. 

She confirmed her position in a statement to The Tyee.

“The report was not prepared to displace  any workers or to make life more difficult for Indigenous peoples  working in the health-care sector,” she wrote. 

“I applaud the work of all Indigenous  peoples in the B.C. health-care system. What happens at the point of  care for Indigenous patients can be improved if Indigenous staff are  part of the frontlines of the system. I encourage a greater investment  in Indigenous staff and resources within the B.C. health-care system.”  

The health authority has posted the new jobs,  which unlike the current positions will be non-unionized. Candidates  are required to have a bachelor’s degree in social work, nursing, health  care or equivalent qualifications and responsibilities are largely the  same, although there is no mention of skills in traditional healing or  ceremonies.

The women say the academic requirements and  the lack of reference to knowledge of traditional healing signals that  western colonial qualifications are being given priority over  traditional knowledge and community relationships.

None of the women have social work or  health-care degrees, but they have other traditional, community-led and  post-secondary training and certifications.

“We work so hard to build that foundation  for this kind of spiritual care in the hospital, only to have the  westernized knowledge thrown at us,” said Trimble. “It’s kind of like  pushing the Indigenous knowledge aside, once again, and history  repeats.”

The women said it was painful to see how  colonial harms continue to happen in health-care settings, such as when  Indigenous babies were taken from their parents by child protection  workers through a practice known as birth alerts. The system  disproportionately impacts Indigenous children and was widely condemned  by First Nations and Métis organizations before it was ended in 2019.

But their work, however challenging, helped the women feel they were making a difference.

They had been cautiously hopeful about  further support when Dr. Lindsay Farrell, who is Anishinaabe, was  appointed director of Indigenous Wellness, Reconciliation and  Partnerships in the summer. But to see the changes enacted under her leadership felt like a slap in  the face, the women said.

“It feels like slapping that Indigenous mask on a colonial idea and calling it an Indigenous idea,” said McDonald.

The Tyee’s request for an interview with Farrell was denied by Providence Health communications staff.

As negotiations between the Hospital  Employees’ Union and Providence over the job cuts continue, the women  say being asked to remain silent about their experiences has felt very  “recolonizing.”

They worry about patients and community members who are uncertain if services will be available when their jobs end next month.

And while they welcome the news that the  program will continue with five new workers, they are concerned that  whoever is hired into the new roles will not be supported or safe in  their work either.

“If you’re trying to work within the  system, if you don’t have power, then you can’t really create change,  and you have a losing situation,” said Rebecca. “I see the gesture of the  five liaisons. But in reality, the whole system needs to change.”

“There needs to be decolonizing done before you can Indigenize anything.”

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