Appointed independent investigator, Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, says she has a small team of investigators looking into allegations of a racist guessing game being played by health care workers in an emergency room at one or more health care facilities in British Columbia.
The game involves guessing the blood alcohol level of patients, particularly those who are Indigenous, which in turn affects the level of care they receive.
The allegations led to the launch of an investigation on June 19.
Once complete, the report is expected to contain recommendations for changes that will be implemented by Health Minister, Adrian Dix, across B.C.
To inform this investigation, Turpel Lafond has launched an online survey, phone line (1-888-600-3078) and email (Addressing_Racism@gov.bc.ca) for Indigenous people who have experienced racism within the health care system as well as health care workers who have witnessed and/or participated in these incidents to come forward.
“This investigation is not trying to determine whether racism exists in B.C.’s health care system. It does exist, just as it does in every aspect of Canadian society,” she said in a press briefing on Thursday.
Rather, the purpose of this inquiry is to determine the range and extent of racism across the system. One of the largest obstacles to gathering information to carry out the investigation, according to Turpel Lafond, is getting health care workers to come forward without fear of recrimination.
She therefore encourages physicians, nurses, etc. to report their witness accounts without being afraid of retaliation, and expresses that the intent of the investigation is not to “blame and shame” those who speak up.
Systemic racism in a stressful workplace
During the question period, Turpel Lafond responded to comments in response to these allegations which suggest that health care workers in B.C. play these guessing games to cope with the stresses of their high pressure jobs.
She emphasized her understanding of health care work being a stressful profession, but expressed that playing a demeaning game and making jokes about patients’ addictions is not an appropriate or healthy way to relieve stress.
Turpel Lafond also added that in the first few weeks of investigating these allegations alongside First Nations leaders, her team has received numerous reports of various racist incidents—apart from the guessing games—that take place within the health care system across all health authorities in the province.
From these reports so far, she says there is a constant theme of Indigenous people who have their medical complaints minimized based on assumptions of intoxication or addiction.
“It would appear as though this might have been present for a long time,” she added.
Individual acts of racism, like the guessing games played by some health care workers, are indicative of a larger, systemic and institutionalized form of racism when they are carried out in an environment where they are tolerated, and bystanders do not speak up against them, says Turpel Lafond.
“As an Indigenous person I’m not completely shocked,” she said about the number of allegations that have come forward.
However she adds that some of the stories that have come forward are very painful and, in some cases, lives have been lost.
Once the report is complete, Turpel Lafond hopes to share some of these stories with the public, with permission from the families of those who suffered through such experiences.
She expects that the recommendations that are made after the investigation is complete will be implemented by the B.C. Ministry of Health.
There is currently no timeline for when the report can be expected.