First Nations doctor wants more action following summit on anti-Indigenous racism in health care

·4 min read

A two-day virtual summit looking at ways to eliminate anti-Indigenous racism in the health-care system wrapped up Thursday — but one First Nations doctor in Alberta is skeptical it will create real change.

"This is the same talk that we had 30 years ago," said Dr. Lana Potts on Friday in an interview with CBC's Radio Active. "But there's really no tangible solutions — there's no metrics to say we're doing better.

"I'm not as hopeful as I should be."

Hundreds of experts and representatives from federal and provincial governments attended the virtual summit.

Potts, who was involved in organizing the summit, is a family physician for the Siksika Nation and medical director for the Piikani Nation in southern Alberta. She's also part of a physician secretariat working with the federal government during the pandemic to address health-care inequities in Indigenous communities.

Potts said while there was talk about following recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission as well as cultural safety and education, issues around anti-Indigenous racism within health care go deeper.

"Racism is not always about name-calling, it's not just always about what we see with overt racism on a personal level," she said.

"Racism can occur from a systems level, from a funding level and really from a policy level of who you value."

Submitted by Dr. Lana Potts
Submitted by Dr. Lana Potts

Potts said First Nations health is chronically underfunded and there needs to be action taken to see more Indigenous people in medical, nursing and health-care schools. She even suggests establishing a medical school led by Indigenous physicians, so students see what people need to know to work in Indigenous communities.

After the summit ended on Thursday, the federal government announced it would begin co-developing new legislation to overhaul Indigenous health.

The legislation aims to ensure Indigenous control over the development and delivery of health services. Potts said she and her colleagues were surprised by the announcement, and have questions.

"We want treaty rights to health, we want to honour the treaties, honour that process of how health should be funded and how health should be delivered to the First Nations.

"That agreement, it already exists"

There's also concern around the staying power of whatever comes out of that promise, as Potts notes legislation may not be supported in the long term and can be reversed.

'We can actually change it'

The summit follows a meeting in October in response to the death of Joyce Echaquan, a 37-year-old Atikamekw woman who filmed her last moments in a Quebec hospital.

Echaquan's viral video captured her screams of distress as hospital staff made degrading comments, calling her stupid and saying she would be better off dead.

While the fall meeting focused on hearing stories about racism in the health-care system, this week's meetings were about changing the treatment many Indigenous people encounter when they seek health services.

In Alberta, Potts said the province needs to recognize the role of First Nations, Métis and Inuit communities as full partners. More community leadership represented at all levels is just one simple step that can be taken.

"I think that's where it starts, I think just acknowledging that racism is here. It's not blaming the current government and the people that are elected, we recognize that this is a system that we were born into," she said.

"This colonial system has existed for more than 150 years, and yet we can actually change it."

Potts said no elected officials from the Alberta government were present and that the province did not offer an official statement during a portion where provincial representatives responded to discussion.

In response to an inquiry from CBC News, spokesperson Zoe Cooper said in an emailed statement that several officials from Alberta Health, including the assistant deputy minister responsible for Indigenous health, participated as observers.

"Alberta Health is deeply committed to working collaboratively with First Nations, Métis and Inuit partners to eliminate racism in Alberta's health care system," Cooper said.

She offered several examples of initiatives underway to meet that goal, including establishing Indigenous expert panels with many First Nations and Métis communities, as well as mandated anti-racism training for all AHS staff.

Opposition NDP health critic David Shepherd was also present for the summit's second day.