In 2016, if discrimination didn’t kill Hugh Papik, it was certainly a contributing factor.
The 68-year-old Inuvialuit man suffered a stroke at his retirement home in Aklavik where he was found lying on the ground, covered in his own urine.
Papik had had several strokes in the past but staff at the retirement home did not seek medical help for their client because they thought he was drunk.
Eventually his niece brought him to the Aklavik Health Centre where medical staff failed to medevac him to a hospital for potentially life-saving treatment, because they also thought he was drunk.
The callous assumptions prevented him from receiving proper medical care and by the time it was discovered that he had in fact suffered a stroke, it was too late and he later passed away.
For a very long time, the Indigenous people of the North have generally been in worse health than the rest of the population.
One study by the Canadian Institute for Health Information found that Indigenous people are more likely to suffer a heart attack than non-Indigenous people and at a younger age.
The study looked at available statistics between 2004 and 2011 and found communities with a high Indigenous population had 76 per cent higher rates of heart attacks than communities with low numbers of Indigenous people.
Indigenous people were also more likely to have other conditions that complicated their heart disease, such as diabetes.
There are many reasons for these health gaps. Here in the North, grocery bills can be astronomically high and too many Indigenous families can’t afford the food they need to stay healthy.
Then there are the vast distances people in remote communities need to travel to access appropriate medical care. If you’re having a stroke or other medical emergency, these distances can mean the difference between life and death.
These are difficult to solve problems but its unconscionable when they’re aggravated by a culture of discrimination that assumes all Indigenous people are drunks or treat them as lesser human beings.
Even the most senior members of government are not immune.
Last week, Tu Nedhé-Wiilideh MLA Tom Beaulieu shared his own experiences with discrimination at a medical centre, even though he was the territory’s health minister.
While visiting the Yellowknife Primary Care Clinic, the receptionist was “short, curt and very rude to me for absolutely no other reason than me showing up as an Aboriginal person,” said Beaulieu.
“I found that to be quite an experience because I was the minister of health at that time,” he said. “I was surprised and shocked and believe many of the stories that have been told since then. I have heard many stories about the attitudes the health workers have towards Indigenous people that I represent. It seems like such a simple thing but it’s so huge for Aboriginal people.”
There can be little doubt that alcohol addiction is a huge problem in many Indigenous communities but one would hope that people – especially those in health care – would have the insight to see past the addiction to the underlying trauma.
After Papik’s death, the GNWT instituted mandatory cultural safety training for all health care workers. Some of their course work includes learning about different cultures in the territory and the history of residential schools and colonization. By the end of March, 100 people in the GNWT’s health department will have completed the training.
We’re sure that many health care workers will appreciate the history lessons but can you really train people to be more culturally sensitive by making them sit through a seminar? No. Let’s be realistic.
Cultural sensitivity training falls short of any honest talk about race, acceptance and the actual pain that people have endured due to discrimination.
It’s a face-saving effort by a government trying to absolve itself of a completely preventable death. But a Band-Aid solution in the absence of real interaction among individuals on the ugly truth of discrimination in the North is better than nothing at all.
There are no easy answers but at the very least the government’s efforts will coerce health care professionals to behave in a professional manner. If they don’t, Indigenous people will end up feeling more stigmatized, in poorer health, or no longer with us at all.