Motion to Call on the Government to Adopt Anti-racism as the Sixth Pillar of the Canada Health Act

By: The Hon. Wanda Thomas Bernard

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Hon. Wanda Elaine Thomas Bernard: Honourable senators, I speak today in support of Senator McCallum’s Motion No. 41 calling on the federal government to adopt anti-racism as the sixth pillar of the Canada Health Act. The existing five pillars do not adequately protect racialized Canadians. Indigenous and Black people in Canada experience health inequities and report experiences of racism within the current medical system. These communities are advocating for change. Adding anti-racism as a pillar would lay the foundation for much-needed systemic change.

In short, colleagues, racism is bad for one’s health. According to the Black Health Alliance, Black people in Canada are more likely to live in poverty and are subject to more health disparities than the rest of Canadians, including chronic illnesses such as heart disease, diabetes and issues related to mental health.

During the study on forced and coerced sterilization of persons in Canada, the Standing Senate Committee on Human Rights heard many accounts of racism and mistreatment within the medical system, including that of Dr. Josephine Etowa, resulting in forced and coerced sterilization. Dr. Etowa’s testimony helped inform the committee’s report, entitled Forced and Coerced Sterilization of Persons in Canada, which stated:

As is the case for Indigenous communities, a history of structural racism, discrimination and exclusion in Canada has created inequities in the health and well-being of African Canadians.

When race intersects with gender, disability, age or immigration status, we can see even more barriers that the default policies and practices cannot reach and, at times, seem invisible.

Colleagues, put yourself in someone else’s shoes for a moment. Imagine you are walking to work and you slip on a patch of ice. Later that night, you wait in the emergency room with searing pain in your hip and shoulder. After waiting for 10 hours, barely seen by any medical staff, you are sent for X-rays. When the attending physician finally appears, you are not given a hospital gown and he does not actually examine you. He simply reads your X-rays, says that nothing is broken and prescribes a treatment of ice, ibuprofen and acetaminophen. He says you should be feeling better in a few days. By the time you leave the hospital, your pain, on a scale from 1 to 10, is actually at 12. You realize then that the doctor never even asked about your pain.

You continue to move through the pain because you were told to return to work. Eventually, the pain is so unbearable that you cannot dress yourself. Two weeks later, upon getting a second opinion, you are correctly diagnosed with a shoulder fracture. Unfortunately, the initial misdiagnosis and lack of treatment have aggravated the fracture and led to multiple other injuries to your shoulder. Despite seeking immediate medical attention after that fall, your pain and your health had not been taken seriously and you are still suffering for it.

Imagine it’s two years later, you still feel that pain in your shoulder, and each and every day you are reminded of being dismissed and misdiagnosed. You feel anger, rage and helplessness because a slip on some ice should not have led to years of pain. Imagine if this had been a life-threatening illness with no time to get a second opinion.

Colleagues, this is not fiction. This happened to me in April 2019, and it continues to impact my life every single day. My experience is not an isolated incident. When I share my story with African Canadians, they nod, understanding my experience because they too have experienced racism and discrimination in the Canadian medical system.

I have witnessed similar treatment of my spouse, other family members and community across the country — different conditions and different doctors but that same medical system that dismisses our pain. These types of experiences are too common for Indigenous and Black people, especially those of us who live with intersecting identities. We cannot continue to risk more deaths and overall lowered sense of well-being in our communities.

In theory, anti-racism should be woven throughout the other five pillars, but as my story highlights, the existing pillars do not always “protect, promote and restore the physical and mental well-being” as they are meant to.

Including anti-racism as a pillar is about ensuring health equity for those who are victims of systemic racism. Health equity is a way of recognizing and accounting for the barriers that exist, and working toward removing those barriers. Accessibility and universality, two of the five existing pillars, are not guaranteed for people who live on the margins.

As Senator McCallum asked, “How can health care be accessible when people are afraid to go to the health centres because of racism?” Until we get to a place where universality and accessibility are a reality, it must be a conscious decision and deliberate action.

Honourable senators, Indigenous and Black people do not feel safe in the current medical system. We face stigma and dehumanization. Some racialized people avoid doctors at all cost. In this chamber, we make our decisions based on research, and we consider the experiences of marginalized Canadians. Accordingly, I support Motion No. 41. I hope that adding my voice to this conversation may help deepen your understanding of what Indigenous, Black and other marginalized people experience in our health system.

This motion will lay the foundation for a future in which equitable access to safe and culturally responsive health services are truly available to all Canadians. Asante. Thank you.

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