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Group exploring "systemic racism" in health care system as inquest wraps up

WINNIPEG - Academics, aboriginal groups and health professionals say they are disappointed an inquest into the death of an aboriginal man during a 34-hour wait in a Winnipeg ER didn't explore "systemic racism" in Canada's health-care system.

The coalition, which includes people from across Canada, says it will pick up where the inquest into the death of Brian Sinclair left off — delving into systemic discrimination in health care and making its own recommendations on how to address it.

Donna Martin, assistant professor in the faculty of nursing at the University of Manitoba, said the group doesn't want the issues around Sinclair's death to end with the inquest, which concluded Thursday.

"It was very disappointing that this issue wasn't explored in the inquest," she said. "Racism does occur and it exists in society. To deem that it doesn't exist in health care is not logical."

Sinclair was referred to the emergency room of Winnipeg's Health Sciences Centre in September 2008 because of a blocked catheter. Although he spoke to a triage aide upon his arrival, he was never formally registered or spoken to by a triage nurse.

The double-amputee languished in the waiting room, vomiting several times as his condition deteriorated, but no one asked if he was OK or if he was awaiting medical treatment. By the time he was discovered dead 34 hours later, rigor mortis had set in. The cause of death was a treatable bladder infection.

Some staff testified at the inquest into his death that they assumed he was drunk or homeless rather than someone waiting for medical care.

Lawyers for Sinclair's family and several aboriginal groups pulled out of the inquest halfway through because inquest Judge Tim Preston ruled the hearing should focus on unclogging emergency rooms rather than exploring why such assumptions were made about Sinclair.

The coalition argued Sinclair didn't die because the emergency room was overcrowded but because of discrimination.

"We want to develop some strategies so that we can improve the education of our health-care providers on how to be more reflective of our personal beliefs and values and learn how to be more compassionate in our care for our patients who have a different race than our own," Martin said.

The inquest heard testimony from experts that aboriginal people face discrimination the minute they walk into an emergency room. The court was also presented with studies that show aboriginal people are less likely to receive some forms of life-saving treatment.

Many, including Sinclair's family, calling for a public inquiry to further examine the discrimination facing aboriginal and marginalized people in the health-care system. Manitoba's attorney general has said the government won't make a decision about that until the inquest report is complete around December.

In the meantime, Annette Browne with the school of nursing at the University of British Columbia said the coalition can raise awareness about the issue and keep it in the public eye. Many people are not even aware of their own biases and assumptions or how they influence how they do their job, she said.

"Discriminatory assumptions frequently have significant effects on the range of decisions made in health-care situations including who has access to needed care," Browne said.

The group is scheduled to meet in July for a two-day summit on the issue.

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