Commentary  Canadian healthcare fails racialized people once again

Content warning: Racism, violence

On March 8, 2018, Wessen Vandenhoek, a Black man living in northeast Calgary, sought care at the East Calgary Health Centre. He was visibly in pain, so the medical staff recommended that he call an ambulance. Upon the ambulance’s arrival, Vandenhoek was greeted with verbal hostilities, threatened, and refused care. “You don’t look like you need a fucking ambulance!” the paramedics said. “This is for real people, not people like you who use us as a goddamn taxi!” Vandenhoek is certain his appearance and race factored into how the paramedics treated him, something bolstered by the change in the paramedics’ tone when they eventually took him to Peter Lougheed hospital. They then quickly adopted a friendlier attitude and helped him into a wheelchair. But when Vandenhoek tried to speak with staff about why he had been treated in the manner he had, he says he was refused the names of the paramedics and threatened with a psychiatric hold, an involuntary stay in psychiatric care that would serve to discredit Vandenhoek if he were to pursue the paramedics’ harassment in court. Since his experience with Calgary Emergency Medical Services, Vandenhoek says he’s missed at least one doctor’s appointment because he “doesn’t feel comfortable going to a medical place right now.”

The paramedics’ denial of Vandenhoek’s medical needs is part of a larger issue of systemic racism in the Canadian healthcare system. The needs of racialized and marginalized people are often minimized, resulting in disproportionately poor health outcomes for those communities. One study linked perceived racism and discrimination experienced by Black women to negative birth outcomes, such as high rates of premature birth and illness incidence. There have also been a number of complaints made across the country about anti-Indigenous racism in health care, in which racist stereotypes and myths have led to neglect, misdiagnoses, and even death. For example, Brian Sinclair, an Indigenous man, was found dead in a wheelchair in a hospital waiting room after going untreated for 34 hours because the nurses thought he was drunk — a pervasive stereotype projected on Indigenous people.

Power dynamics between healthcare providers and their patients enforce racist, bureaucratic systems of oppression that threaten the quality of care provided to racialized people seeking medical aid. Medical officials act on systemic racial prejudices, which end up privileging the health, safety, and well-being of white patients. Further, there is an ongoing under-representation of Black, Indigenous, and Latinx doctors across medical disciplines. Therefore, we must seek representation through the education and inclusion of marginalized and racialized medical professionals into doctoral programs, residencies, and care facilities like surgery rooms throughout Canada’s healthcare system. Moreover, we must expose the extensive reach of state violence and colonial racism through the acknowledgement of people like Wessen Vandenhoek and Brian Sinclair to dismantle the racism that threatens the quality of healthcare. This can be actively combated by giving specialized training to healthcare professionals. As a first step, McGill should also seek to implement a program similar to the University of Toronto’s Black Student Education program to diversify the student body of our medical school and take part in the dismantling of racism in the Canadian healthcare system.