Abuse At Canadian Hospitals Is Putting Indigenous Moms & Their Babies At Risk

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When Kristy White watched a video of Joyce Echaquan, the Indigenous woman who was abused by nurses as she lay dying in Quebec, it triggered traumatic memories of her own mistreatment in a Canadian hospital. White, 34, is a member of Nisga’a First Nation and gave birth to her son in northern B.C. in June during the height of the pandemic. Her nurse, she recalls, was rude and unprofessional. “She looked at me like I was dirty and she was aggressive with me — she yanked my arms when taking my blood pressure and was constantly rolling her eyes.” On top of that, the nurse's actions, White says, put both her and her baby at risk.
At one point, she says the nurse ignored the doctor’s orders to increase the oxytocin in her IV drip (oxytocin is commonly used to speed up labour) and blocked White’s husband from getting the doctor, delaying the birth of her son significantly. She believes this mistreatment was because she’s Indigenous. Watching the video of Echaquan experiencing similar abuse “brought me back to when I was laying there screaming, crying, and asking for my doctor,” she says. “I was thinking my son and I were going to die.”
The mistreatment of pregnant racialized women in Canada and some 44 other countries during the pandemic is the subject of an ongoing investigation by political website openDemocracy. Lockdowns have blocked women’s access to critical healthcare before, during, and after birth, sometimes with deadly consequences. In the United States, for example, where Black people are three times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes than white people, COVID has exposed huge gaps in maternal care, gaps long fuelled by medical racism and implicit biases. Canada doesn’t track race-based health data, but a 2015 study has found that Black Canadians have a higher risk of giving birth pre-term based on racial disparities in healthcare. 

Indigenous mothers in Canada have reported being subject to medical treatments without consent and being denied pain medicine because they’re stereotyped as drug addicts.

For Indigenous women in Canada, reports OpenDemocracy, the gap in care manifests in several ways. Like when doctor’s appointments are moved online but only 24% of on-reserve households have reliable internet connections. Or the physical barriers of transporting women from their homes in remote areas to hospitals, a journey, per pandemic restrictions, they’re now required to take alone. The pandemic has also restricted support workers such as doulas and midwives to limit the number of people in the birthing room. Inidgenous doulas provide support and assist in incorporating cultural practices in the birthing process.
Fear of discrimination and racism in hospitals on top of being worried about contracting COVID-19 place further pressures on pregnant Indigenous women, according to the report. Women like Benita Bull, 23, from Maskwacis First Nations in Alberta, who is afraid to go back to a hospital after a traumatizing experience giving birth in May that included being neglected by a doctor. “I was screaming the whole time, in pain and scared,” said Bull, who waited 24 hours in hospital without a doctor's assessment. “It was like [the doctor] didn’t care.” Indigenous mothers in Canada have also reported being subject to medical treatments without consent, according to the report, and, like White, being denied pain medicine because they’re stereotyped as drug addicts.
These stories don’t surprise Lorraine Whitman, the president of the Native Women’s Association of Canada. “Systemic racism has been occurring [in Canada’s health-care system] for many years,” she says. In fact, for over a century, Indigenous patients were segregated and treated at separate hospitals in Canada. These hospitals were inadequate and overcrowded; there are countless reports of malnourished patients, sexual assaults, and unaccounted deaths. In some hospitals, staff performed experimental surgeries and gave experimental drugs to Indigenous patients and children.
While most “Indian hospitals” in Canada closed by the 1980s, mistreatment abounds. In 2019, approximately 100 Indigenous women in Saskatchewan sued the provincial government claiming they were sterilized at hospitals against their will after giving birth, an inhumane practice that dates back decades. Birth alerts, when hospital staff alert social services about newborns they believe might need protection, are no longer allowed in B.C. and will soon be ending in Manitoba and Ontario but continue elsewhere across the country. These alerts disproportionately target Indigenous women. Whitman also points to the Canadian crisis of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, which predisposes Indigenous women to violence making them more vulnerable to mistreatment in the health-care system. “This is genocide, and it has to stop,” she says.

No matter what colour you are, no one should go through what Joyce went through or what these other Indigenous women are experiencing. Let’s be the solution. We want to work together and we need allies.

Lorraine Whitman, president of the Native Women’s Association of Canada
While Whitman believes Echaquan’s horrific and preventable death helped open the eyes of governments and medical institutions to a broken system, but she wants to see tangible solutions, such as funding. According to openDemocracy, Indigenous Services Canada says the government is trying to address these issues by educating Indigenous women on their health-care rights via forums and advisory committees, and investing in Indigenous midwifery. Time will tell if this is enough — but the system can’t move fast enough. “No matter what colour you are, no one should go through what Joyce went through or what these other Indigenous women are experiencing,” says Whitman. “Let’s be the solution. We want to work together and we need allies.”
Otherwise, Black and Indigenous Canadians will continue to face racism and discrimination that puts their health, their lives, and their babies at risk. In Bull’s case, luckily a doctor arrived just before she gave birth. She was given an emergency C-section, but later developed an infection and discovered foam used in surgery was left inside her body. Overall, it was a terrifying experience that she doesn’t want to go through again. “If I was white, I don’t think this would’ve happened," she says. "Like Joyce — that could’ve been me.”

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