Whether systemic discrimination against Inuit exists in the health-care system, it’s not yet at a stage where a class-action lawsuit is viable.

“Discrimination in health services is much more passive and difficult to assign as racist,” says lawyer Steven Cooper, who’s attempting to bring together a class-action lawsuit among Inuit who feel they’ve been discriminated against while seeking medical care.
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Steven Cooper, a partner in the law firm Cooper Regal, proposed such a class-action lawsuit last year but to date only a dozen to 20 people have come forward to share their hardships. Among them, there aren’t yet enough similar circumstances in the same jurisdiction to have enough plaintiffs involved in the same suit, Cooper said. He noted that the legal action has to be against the right body, which might be the GNWT, a provincial government, a hospital, or even an individual doctor, nurse or healthcare provider.

“We’re continuing to collect information and monitor the situation, and I hope we’ll have enough to proceed at some point,” he stated.

One of the challenges is that health care is so segmented, particularly for Northerners who travel to places like Ottawa, Winnipeg, Edmonton and Yellowknife for many consultations and treatments.

“It’s also difficult to identify bad behaviour as necessarily discriminatory,” Cooper stated. “We believe that the health-care system suffers from exactly the same sort of systemic discriminatory practises as do police services, for example, but they are run by so many individual entities but it’s hard to put together the (court) action.”

As an example of possible discriminatory conduct, Cooper cited an instance where an Inuk man was misdiagnosed as suffering from an alcohol-based medical condition and he died as a result. He said that sort of presumption on the part of urban health providers, in particular, permeates the system.

“Our potential class (action) members report condescending remarks often involving the misuse of alcohol,” he said. “Some of the people that I’ve talked to myself and my staff make reference to racist slurs… I think one of the big differences will be the relative absence of video evidence that we have in the RCMP discrimination cases. Discrimination in health services is much more passive and difficult to assign as racist.”

He added that sometimes health-care providers may not even realize they’re being discriminatory.

Ottawa study of Inuit patients

Unrelated to the potential lawsuit, the Ottawa Aboriginal Coalition and the Wabano Centre for Aboriginal Health conducted numerous interviews with Inuit in late 2018 and early 2019 to learn of any discrimination they faced while in Ottawa for medical purposes. Thousands of Nunavummiut travel to the nation’s capital annually for various examinations and treatments. A spokesperson for the Wabano Centre told Nunavut News last week that a video overview based on the interviews with Inuit is not yet complete.

Aluki Kotierk, president of land claims organization Nuanvut Tunngavik Incorporated, has, for years, been raising concerns about a lack of health care service in Inuktut.

“So imagine living here in Mississauga (Ont.), where the majority public language is English; now imagine that almost none of the health professionals speak or understand that majority language. How would you feel going into that system? This is our reality,” Kotierk said during a presentation to the Indigenous Health Conference in 2018.

She recognized Nunavut Arctic College’s aspirations to cultivate more home-grown, Inuktut-speaking nurses in the territory.

“I would also add that as Inuktut-speakers, we also have a responsibility to request services in Inuktut rather than continually reverting to speaking English. The more we demand services in Inuktut, surely government systems will get the message that we need and expect services in Inuktut,” Kotierk stated.

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Derek Neary

Derek Neary has been reporting on developments in the North for 18 years. When he's not writing for Nunavut News, he's working on Northern News Services' special publications such as Opportunities North,...