Would Mehdi Belhadj, the former UPEI student born in Saudi Arabia who was detained on P.E.I. and faced deportation after accessing mental health care for which he could not pay, be in that situation if he were white?
That question was posed to Tamara Steele, executive director of the Black Cultural Society of P.E.I., at the end of her presentation to a committee of MLAs Wednesday on the state of racism on P.E.I.
Her answer was short and quick: "No."
Steele had spent the previous hour and 45 minutes speaking personally and passionately about the urgent need to address health-care issues, particularly in the area of mental health, in the BIPOC community.
"I think we want to really, really get comfortable with having uncomfortable conversations, because that's the only way to really move forward with any of this work," she said in an interview after her presentation.
I think we want to really, really get comfortable with having uncomfortable conversations because that's the only way to really move forward with any of this work. — Tamara Steele
Steele used Belhadj's case as the most recent example for the committee, but provided one of her own experiences as well.
She said she once saw a doctor after she noticed blemishes on her skin that turned out to be hives. Steele said the doctor, perhaps not recognizing what hives look like on dark skin, quietly asked if she felt safe at home. She said it was offensive and confusing.
"Putting someone in that situation where now I have to try to convince the doctor that my husband is not abusive is a very uncomfortable and difficult situation that a lot of people experience," she said.
Steele recounted a story of a Black woman who was treated for AIDS when all she had was a kidney infection.
Another misconception, she said, is that Black skin is thicker, so the threshold for pain is higher for Black people.
"They sound ridiculous, I know, because they are but they're real stereotypes in the medical profession," she said. "You're having experiences where people are turned off by the medical system and they don't want to go back."
Steele recommended the government hire more people of colour to leadership roles and health-care positions, and educate health-care workers on issues specific to people of colour.
"When considering barriers to access to certain programs and services, I think we need to consider that you may not, as a white person, you may not understand what those barriers are because you've never lived with them," she said.
Race-based data collection
With P.E.I.'s growing BIPOC population, Steele would also like to see race-based data collection in health-care, education and social services to ensure people are receiving help equally and effectively.
"I think that's a really important place to start as far as developing statistics on who needs help, what are the gaps, why are they feeling unsafe, why are they not accessing services, what are those barriers and I think starting to collect race-based data will really help to identify that and allow government to move forward in remedying some of these issues."
For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of.