• Race to a Cure Authors

Systemic Racism in the Canadian Healthcare System

Image is Courtesy of Walgreens

Joyce Echaquan was 37 years old and a mother to 7 children from the first nation reserve, Atikamekw de Manawan, in Quebec. On September 26th, 2020, she was admitted to the Centre Hospitalier de Lanaudiere in Saint-Charles-Borromee in Quebec for stomach pains. Two days later, she died in the care of several hospital workers who had spent the last minutes of her life throwing degrading and dehumanizing verbal abuse at her. This incident was not the first time Joyce felt mistreated by workers in the healthcare system or the first experience documented on Facebook Live. This shocking video evidence gained her story national attention. It highlighted the systemic racism in Canada's healthcare system. Still, it came to much less shock to the indigenous community, who had been suffering similar experiences since the establishment of healthcare systems.

In 2008, Brian Sinclair– an indigenous man, died of sepsis after waiting for help in a Winnipeg hospital for 34 hours. The medical staff were alerted 17 times by patients and other staff of Sinclair's deteriorating condition, but they had assumed he was intoxicated or homeless. In 2015, multiple indigenous women in Saskatchewan came forward on forced sterilizations they endured at healthcare workers' hands. Countless indigenous people being ignored to death or mistreated in the healthcare system are continuing to surface. In contrast, each story we hear represents hundreds of others buried in the graves of those killed by systemic racism.

While the lives killed by systemic racism are on the rise, Canada continues to be praised for its dedication to equality and developed healthcare systems. Yet, racial minorities are being disproportionately affected by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Racism, not race, is a risk factor for dying of COVID”
Dr. Camara Phyllis Jones

Racism deeply ingrained into our society means BIPOC are more exposed and less protected to the virus either due to environmental, labour, housing, or health care factors. Many indigenous populations lack access to medical care, proper PPE, healthy environments, and even clean water which all combat COVID-19 infections. The situation is similar among many other racial minorities in Canada and around the world. Medicalized racial stigma and undervalued health concerns also contribute to the inequalities in COVID-19 demographic trends as discriminatory healthcare practices towards minorities include invalidating or dismissing health issues. The COVID-19 pandemic revealed the unfair impacts on racial minorities but also progressed a pandemic of racism.

Image is Courtesy of University of San Diego

Racism within the healthcare system is heavily prominent in Canada, but the effects of this systemic racism are not always apparent. Systemic racism means discriminatory practices reach every corner of society, which doesn't exclude the healthcare system or medical education. While defunding the policing system will help us eliminate police brutality, the healthcare system does not have as clear a solution. For example, medical studies are often based on a white demographic, which means racial minorities receive treatment tailored for an entirely different population. For the Black community, this can be due to valid mistrust and suspicion of scientific research from African Americans' medical abuse in the 1970s, such as the Tuskegee experiment, which refrained from treating African Americans Syphilis despite the availability of a widespread and effective treatment. However, despite this horrendous abuse, studies have still concluded a more significant effort would lead to an adequately diverse participant pool.

Additionally, BIPOC researchers receive less funding for research and thus, fewer papers target minority medical issues. When there's less research, it is harder to treat BIPOC patients when their diagnosis is not precise. This struggle stems from medical school education as the outdated curriculum has an implicit focus on white patients. The education system is based on the diseases and symptoms suffered by white people, which is the first step in making equal health care impossible for everyone.

As a visible minority and first-generation minority, I have first-hand witnessed the systemic racism embedded in our healthcare system, but even more prominently, the denial of its entire existence. It is all too common for people not affected by systemic racism to claim the problems don't exist or are rare and isolated. However, people in power with a cushion of privilege to fall back on cannot always see the systems that protect them are killing us. To change the health care system, we have to acknowledge the challenges POC face and honour those who died at the hands of systemic racism before all else.


Brian Sinclair: Killed by racism. (n.d.). Retrieved February, 2021, from http://ignoredtodeathmanitoba.ca/

Chappell, T. F. (2020, July 29). How systemic racism affects public health Part 1: Health disparities among black people (1215452682 905147232 E. Ornberg, Ed.). Retrieved February, 2021, from https://www.walgreens.com/rx-healthanswer/health/p2/a/3200001/how-systemic-racism-affects-public-health-part-1-health-disparities-among-black-people/2449079

Geary, A. (2017, September 19). Ignored to death: Brian Sinclair's death caused by racism, inquest INADEQUATE, group says | CBC News. Retrieved February, 2021, from https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/manitoba/winnipeg-brian-sinclair-report-1.4295996

Lowrie, M., & Malone, K. G. (2020, October 04). Joyce Echaquan's death highlights systemic racism in health Care, experts say. Retrieved February, 2021, from https://www.ctvnews.ca/health/joyce-echaquan-s-death-highlights-systemic-racism-in-health-care-experts-say-1.5132146

"More exposed and LESS Protected" In canada: Systemic racism And COVID-19. (n.d.). Retrieved February, 2021, from http://www.vawlearningnetwork.ca/our-work/backgrounders/more_exposed_and_less_protected_in_canada_systemic_racism_and_covid19/

Featured image courtesy of Wix

Article Author: Kerry Yang

Article Editors: Edie Whittington, Maria Giroux