October 21, 2020

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Indigenous elder accuses Winnipeg hospital of racism, mistreatment

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Bunibonibee Elder, Sadie North, left, shared her experience with racism at a Winnipeg emergency room and hospital with her daughter, Sheila North, at her side at a press conference Friday.</p>

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Bunibonibee Elder, Sadie North, left, shared her experience with racism at a Winnipeg emergency room and hospital with her daughter, Sheila North, at her side at a press conference Friday.

A Cree elder is calling for the firing of a doctor and clerk, along with an overhaul of Indigenous health care, while decrying racist treatment at a Winnipeg hospital.

Sadie North, 72, was enjoying a picnic with family at Assiniboine Park on a Saturday in September when she began feeling lethargic and unwell, prompting her daughter, former Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak grand chief Sheila North, to bring her to Grace Hospital for care.

At a news conference Friday, Sadie North described experiences of anti-Indigenous racism throughout her four-day stay at the hospital — from a berating and aggressive hospital clerk to a doctor who accused her of being drunk (she does not drink).

It was later determined she was suffering from sepsis from a bacterial skin infection her leg.

The clerk who gave North her initial check-ups was dismissive of her illness from the beginning, she said, and did not offer help until she began vomiting on herself.

"They assumed that she was consumed with alcohol, right from that second clerk to the first doctor that she remembers. And that’s the problem: people are assuming that our sick loved ones are doing this to themselves and that they shouldn’t be asking for what they deserve in dignity and access to good health," said Sheila North.

While both women acknowledge questions about alcohol and cigarette use are standard in hospital check-ups, the doctor's berating tone was unlike anything the 72-year-old had experienced in previous interactions with the health-care system.

Sheila North said she has been working through the hospital’s patient relations systems to address her mother’s treatment. The Grace has offered a generic apology from a head nurse, and assurance staff undergo cultural relations training, she said.

"But it’s not enough," Sheila North said. "People like my mom shouldn’t be made to feel that she has to defend herself when she’s sick. She’s already very ill, and for someone to accuse her of drinking alcohol was very hurtful."

Dissatisfied with the options presented by the hospital, the former northern Manitoba grand chief is calling for both the doctor and clerk involved to be fired.

"They shouldn’t have a job. They probably are OK now in their pensions that they can go off and still have a good life, but for people like my mom and others that are made to feel less-than, they still have to deal with the feelings and the trauma that comes with being told that you’re not good enough to be treated well," she said.

In a statement provided to media Friday afternoon, Kellie O’Rourke, Grace Hospital chief operating officer, said the hospital has extended an apology to the North family — and will continue to engage in conversation in order to do "everything possible to address their concerns."

Sadie North said she chose to speak out about her experiences to prevent the same treatment from happening to someone else, noting this is not the first time in recent history Indigenous people have faced mistreatment at the hands of health-care professionals.

High-profile incidents in Quebec have sparked public outrage and an emergency meeting of federal ministers, Indigenous leaders and health professionals Friday to discuss racism in health care.

"We’re hearing from different people that go to hospitals or other medical centres, because family members and other advocates aren’t able to go with them (due to COVID-19 pandemic restrictions), they don’t always get the best care, and we’re hearing more and more stories of it," said Sheila North.

She called for leaders to invest support into Indigenous-led, run and monitored health-care services: "We have to overhaul the medical system for Indigenous people."

julia-simone.rutgers@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @jsrutgers

Julia-Simone Rutgers

Julia-Simone Rutgers
Reporter

Julia-Simone Rutgers is a general-assignment reporter.

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