OTTAWA — Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller says he’s convening a high-level meeting with Indigenous leaders to tackle systemic racism in health care as communities brace for the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The problem gained new attention with the death of Joyce Echaquan, who livestreamed racial slurs directed at her by the nurses in a Quebec hospital last month.
“There are many instances across Canada where this continues to occur,” Miller said in a solemn news conference Thursday. “It is systemic. It is racist in nature. It’s unfair.”
Miller said Indigenous people have become too used to just being treated “like garbage” when they go to hospital, and that is unacceptable.
Miller said the risk that Indigenous people won’t seek care, or an eventual vaccine, for the virus that causes COVID-19 is real if the problems in the health care system are not dealt with.
Miller said the COVID-19 infection rate among First Nations people living on reserves has been one-third of the rate in the general Canadian population.
“Thanks to amazing leadership, Indigenous communities have done exceedingly well during the first wave,” he said, but the number of cases in First Nations communities is at risk of getting out of hand now.
The government knows of 123 active cases in First Nations communities as of Wednesday, and a total of 768 confirmed cases since March.
“There’s little doubt that the second wave of COVID will hit Indigenous people harder than the first wave,” he said.
The government is also concerned about influenza, Miller said, with annual flu season imminent.
“We know that the uptake for the flu vaccine is lower among Indigenous Peoples,” he said.
He said the deployment of the H1N1 vaccine into those communities, which are often small and remote from urban centres, was extremely challenging when that threatening strain of flu appeared in 2009.
“This points to a pattern that we must avoid at all costs when we get to the deployment of a COVID-19 vaccine.”
The speech from the throne committed the government to co-develop Indigenous health legislation and a mental health and wellness strategy with First Nations, Inuit and Metis people, with reforms that recognize the different needs and wishes of different communities.
“The reform of the health-care system is culturally sensitive,” Miller said. “We’ve heard the urgent call for change.”
Details of the meeting are forthcoming but Miller suggested it will include an effort to set measurable objectives with short timelines.
“It’s urgent,” he said.
Miller said the meeting will provide “space” for those experiencing racism and those working in the health care area. Solving the problems will take federal and provincial co-operation, he said.
“There is a challenge, jurisdictionally, in reforming a system that has been, frankly, a source of tension.”