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Inquest into Winnipeg man’s death told aboriginals face racism in ERs

Russell Sinclair leaves a funeral chapel after service for his brother Brian Sinclair Friday Sept. 26, 2008, in Winnipeg. Brian Sinclair died Sunday after waiting 34 hours in the HSC emergency room.

Wayne Glowacki/The Canadian Press

One of Canada's top aboriginal public health experts says native people face racism and discrimination in the country's emergency departments.

Janet Smylie told an inquest into the death of an aboriginal man during a 34-hour wait in a Winnipeg hospital's ER that Canada's health-care system wasn't set up to include aboriginals.

Dr. Smylie, a Métis physician at St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto, suggested the health system is a loose extension of colonialism because it is founded on the belief that one set of people are superior to another.

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"Our health-care services were set up with the best intentions in mind," Dr. Smylie testified Tuesday. "They weren't set up with indigenous people in mind."

Studies have found aboriginal people are less likely to get some life-saving treatment, Dr. Smylie said.

Many face overt racism while others suffer from less explicit bias and stereotyping, she said. But while health-care racial discrimination has been studied and tracked in the United States and Australia, it is still an uncomfortable subject in Canada, she added.

Surveys have shown aboriginal people expect discrimination and judgment when they go to an emergency room and actually develop strategies to deal with it, Dr. Smylie said.

"We actually accompany our family members to the emergency department because we're so concerned," Dr. Smylie said. "We are anticipating they will receive unequal treatment."

Brian Sinclair was referred to the emergency department in September, 2008, because of a blocked catheter. Although the double-amputee spoke to a triage aide when he arrived at the hospital, he was never formally entered into the hospital triage system.

He languished in the waiting room for hours as his condition deteriorated. Mr. Sinclair vomited several times but was never asked whether he was waiting for medical treatment.

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By the time he was discovered dead, rigor mortis had set in.

Although many hospital staff testified they saw Mr. Sinclair, no one thought he was waiting for care. An internal report after his death found some thought the aboriginal man was drunk and was waiting for a ride or just needed a warm place to rest.

"Everybody had good intentions but I wonder about these implicit associations," said Dr. Smylie, who noted that many mistakenly assumed Mr. Sinclair was homeless.

"That could have been an assumption people made based on stereotyping. The problem is, the diagnosis was wrong."

Canada has to address the subtle racism that fuels biases and stereotypes in health care, she said. Cultural training should include testing that reveals implicit assumptions people make, Dr. Smylie said.

Equally important is the need to address "compassion fatigue and burnout" among emergency department staff. Medical staff can learn to be more attuned to those who walk in the door through compassion training, Dr. Smylie suggested.

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Working in an emergency room is demanding emotionally and staff have to take care of themselves as well as their patients, she said.

More training is also required for health-care professionals regarding aboriginal history to give them insight into the trauma and legacy of native residential schools, Dr. Smylie said.

"It's actually training the health-care professional to be responsive and help them feel safe versus retraumatized."

The health authority has argued it has made numerous changes since Mr. Sinclair's death, including to the layout of the waiting room so patients can be better monitored. All incoming patients are greeted by a security guard.

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