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Racism linked to illness in Indigenous peoples in Canada

Toronto, February 3, 2015

Dr. Janet Smylie
Dr. Janet Smylie

Over six years after the historic apology by the federal government regarding residential schools, Canada’s Indigenous people still face racism and lack equal access to health care, according to a new report.

The report, First Peoples, Second Class Treatment, was produced for the Wellesley Institute by The Well Living House Action Research Centre for Indigenous Infant, Child and Family Health and Well-Being of St. Michael’s Hospital.

“The historical and contemporary link between racism and poor Indigenous health outcomes is clear but we need better data to understanding the specific impacts of racism at both the individual and systems levels and identify the best strategies to address it” said Dr. Janet Smylie, a co-author of the report and a Métis physician with St. Michael’s Hospital.

“Health care, child welfare and the criminal justice system are all affected by persistent racist perceptions and policies that continue to hurt Indigenous peoples and perpetuate disparities in social determinants of health such as access to education, housing, healthy food and employment.”

More reliable measures of the disproportionate burden of illness, poverty, and discrimination that challenge Indigenous people compared to the rest of Canadians will allow advocates to better engage Canadians in discourse on how to improve health and its determinants for Indigenous peoples.

“Racism a difficult topic and an uncomfortable conversation to have, but I believe evidence supports the need for acknowledgement and change in Canada,” said Dr. Smylie, who is also director of Well Living House.

The researchers wrote that racism in the Canadian health care system can be fatal, citing the death of 45-year-old Indigenous man, Brian Sinclair, following a 34-hour wait in a Winnipeg emergency department in 2008. They also cited evidence describing the pervasiveness of racism within the health-care system and how Indigenous peoples strategize around anticipated racism before visiting the hospital or choose to avoid care altogether.

A primary focus of the report was the need to better measure the impact of racism on Indigenous peoples’ access to health care, but researchers also call for the evaluation of Indigenous health interventions that have already been implemented.

St. Michael’s developed an Aboriginal patient navigator role and a few Canadian hospitals have created Indigenous-specific programs for certain health services. Both of these interventions, and others like them, aim to serve as a bridge between Indigenous patients and the health care system.

“We need better policies and services to eliminate racial biases and meet the specific needs of Indigenous peoples,” said Dr. Kwame McKenzie, CEO of the Wellesley Institute. “Over time, it will be important to evaluate these kinds of programs to determine which most effectively close the gap between the alarming disparities in health between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples.”

To download copies of the report visit: www.wellesleyinstitute.com

About St. Michael's Hospital

St. Michael’s Hospital provides compassionate care to all who enter its doors. The hospital also provides outstanding medical education to future health care professionals in 27 academic disciplines. Critical care and trauma, heart disease, neurosurgery, diabetes, cancer care, care of the homeless and global health are among the hospital’s recognized areas of expertise. Through the Keenan Research Centre and the Li Ka Shing International Healthcare Education Centre, which make up the Li Ka Shing Knowledge Institute, research and education at St. Michael's Hospital are recognized and make an impact around the world. Founded in 1892, the hospital is fully affiliated with the University of Toronto.

Media contacts

For more information, or to arrange an interview with Dr. Allan or Dr. Smylie, please contact:

Leslie Shepherd
Manager, Media Strategy, St. Michael's Hospital
416-864-6094
shepherdl@smh.ca