Lawsuit of the week: B.C. faces lawsuit over alleged inaction surrounding racism against Indigenous peoples in hospitals

Chung Chow, BIV

A class of Indigenous people is suing the B.C. government, claiming in a class action lawsuit that the province has allegedly failed to deal with decades of systemic racism in the health-care system. 

In a notice of civil claim filed on May 27 under the Class Proceedings Act, lead plaintiff Candice Patrick claims Indigenous peoples, including First Nations, Metis and Inuit people face “widespread racism” when trying to access hospital services in British Columbia. 

Patrick, who lives in Houston, B.C., claims Indigenous peoples are “subjected to humiliating, demeaning, and sub-standard hospital care,” and are treated differently than non-Indigenous peoples due to their “race, colour, or ethnic origin” in violation of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. 

According to the claim, the provincial government has been aware of the problem since at least 2005 after being urged by the BC First Nations Leadership Council to take action against systemic racism in the province’s hospitals. Back then, the council advocated for “cultural competency training” for health-care professionals to mitigate the discriminatory treatment Indigenous peoples face when trying to access health-care services. 

A year later, the lawsuit says, the province released a “First Nations Health Plan,” committing to developing training programs and signed a memo in recognition of “the need to ensure equitable and culturally sensitive access to health services” for Indigenous peoples. 

But the training program developed by the province wasn’t mandatory for hospital workers, and the class action claims the government has failed to take meaningful action to improve the “patient experience” for Indigenous peoples. 

Meanwhile, in November 2020, the province released a damning report entitled In Plain Sight: Addressing Indigenous-specific Racism and Discrimination in BC Health Care. The report, the claim says, revealed that Indigenous peoples faced “widespread stereotyping, racism, and discrimination” when trying to access hospital services. In June 2021, the B.C. government released an “action plan” to deal with the issue, finding that the In Plain Sight report offered a “blueprint for action to address systemic racism” in B.C. health care.

“Despite being aware – for decades – of the significant problem of racism against Indigenous peoples within British Columbia’s hospital system, the defendant has failed to take timely and appropriate steps to eliminate or reduce the problem,” the lawsuit states. “The failure on the part of the defendant to address widespread Indigenous-specific racism in the hospital system has caused the issue to become deeply rooted and systemic.”  

The lawsuit details lead plaintiff Patrick’s experience in June 2020 when she went to Bulkley Valley District Hospital in Smithers after having surgery. She had severe abdominal pain, but the hospital allegedly failed to do blood tests and imaging that would’ve revealed a serious post-surgical complication. Instead, Patrick claims she was accused of “drug-seeking” due to her Indigenous background leaving her “humiliated and distrustful.” 

 “Had the plaintiff not been Indigenous, further testing would likely have been carried out, and her treatment would not have been provided in a demeaning and racist manner,” the claim states.

Patrick seeks class certification, damages for Charter violations, and declarations that the B.C. government is obligated to “reasonably ensure” that Indigenous peoples can access non-discriminatory health-care services. 

The allegations have not been proven or tested in court, and the provincial government had not responded to the lawsuit by press time.