Connor Sutton
L-R: Trena Black, Connor Sutton’s mother, with supporters and allies Jeff Welch, Sarah Wright Cardinal, Golden Nic, Veronica Vander Heiden demonstrating outside Royal Jubilee Hospital on July 22. Photo courtesy of Tania Dick.

Changes needed to prevent anti-Indigenous racism in B.C.’s healthcare system, say family of Connor Sutton

“The system needs to change to be fair to all people,” Sutton says.

Friends, family and allies are calling for significant reform to B.C.’s healthcare system. Connor Sutton, a 23-year-old Indigenous man from T’Sou-ke Nation, received what they say was racist treatment and inappropriate care at two Vancouver Island hospitals.

“If [this] was an isolated incident, as tragic and horrible as it is, it would be a different thing,” says his mother Trena Black, whose traditional T’Sou-ke name is TA LIAIS. “But this is Connor’s example of what happens all the time.”

The fallout over Sutton’s care coincides with a province-wide reckoning on anti-Indigenous racism in the health-care system. In June, B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix appointed Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond to lead an independent investigation after allegations that emergency room staff played a racist game to guess the blood-alcohol content of Indigenous patients. Investigators are still accepting emails and voicemails from people who have witnessed or experienced racism in the health-care system.

What happened to Connor Sutton?

“Connor had driven across Canada to return home after a death in the family,” according to a press release from his family. “He had an acute injury, a hole in his esophagus which led to air around his heart. This caused chest pains, vomiting, speech and breathing issues, and severe confusion.”

When he returned a second time after this diagnosis at the Cowichan District Hospital in Duncan, he was allegedly refused care. The press release and family say he was told by a nurse “to go to a homeless shelter,” and was physically assaulted by hospital security. He then went to Royal Jubilee Hospital in Victoria, B.C. where his family says he was held for a month in a psychiatric ward without disclosure of a diagnosis.

In an emailed statement, Vancouver Island Health Authority (VIHA) responded, “Due to privacy laws and in support of Island Health’s confidentiality policies, we cannot discuss or disclose details about individual patients or the care they receive.” VIHA president and CEO Kathy MacNeil did, however, acknowledge that “systemic anti-Indigenous racism occurs within our health authority.”

She continues, “I want our patients and communities to know we are taking action, and our response is being led and guided by Indigenous leaders and communities to ensure our actions are meaningful.”

Sutton’s family say a key hearing scheduled for July 20 that would have disclosed information to them and potentially released him from the hospital was cancelled that same day. The family called for action the following day with their media release. Indigenous leaders and allies shared their voices in support, sharing press releases and joining a rally outside the hospital in support of Sutton, attracting local and national media attention.

Sutton’s case sparks outrage

“A young man, hurt and confused, walks into a hospital expecting help. He is instantly racially profiled and is viewed as a homeless, intoxicated threat, not worthy of care and respect,” stated Robert Phillips of the First Nations Summit Political Executive in a press release on July 22. “Connor’s horrendous treatment by hospital staff is not unique in its prevalence and commonality.”

In her statement, MacNeil said, “On July 22, Island Health’s Executive Lead for Indigenous Health – Dawn Thomas – and I met with Connor’s mother to listen to and learn from her experience and that of her son. Dawn and I committed to follow up on her requests and concerns both to support Connor’s health and care needs going forward and to take actions based on our learnings of their experience to-date. We will continue our conversations with Connor’s family, and with Indigenous leaders and communities, as we build out and implement further actions to address anti-Indigenous racism. We understand Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond will also review the concerns raised and we are committed to supporting her review.”

In an interview with IndigiNews, Black shared details of what followed. A new physician was assigned to Sutton at Royal Jubilee Hospital. After nearly one month of being alone in hospital, his family was permitted to see him as essential visitors. With the new physician, Sutton was released on July 27.

“The system needs to change to be fair to all people,” Sutton shared in an email after his release. “There are lots of good nurses here, but some of the wrong people have way too much power.”

Advocates call for change

Sarah Wright Cardinal is a cousin of the Sutton family, and is also an assistant professor and the undergraduate program chair at the University of Victoria’s School of Child and Youth Care. Wright Cardinal has specific suggestions to address anti-Indigenous racism in health-care settings.

“The pervasive unconscious bias towards First Nations and other BIPOC families needs to be acknowledged and addressed,” she says. “All levels of hospital staff need to go through intensive experiential cultural safety training. Not online training – in-person with an Indigenous facilitator.”

In an email to IndigiNews, VIHA described the cultural safety training currently offered to staff through San’yas Indigenous Cultural Safety Training, which is based on “an anti-Indigenous racism approach.” The program is open to all staff at VIHA, which is in the process of expanding access.

“This year, Island Health has purchased more than 2,100 San’yas training seats and they will be used by a wide range of people throughout the system, including executive leadership, department heads, supervisors, front line staff and physicians,” according to the email. “Additionally, Island Health’s Indigenous Cultural Safety program is offering online courses in ICS, including For Seven Generations: For the Children, Relational Practice: It Starts With You, and monthly ICS Webinars.”

Black says that, in her view, the training should be mandatory.

“Indigenous courses are mandatory now when nurses and teachers get their degrees,” she says. “I think that the people at VIHA that choose to sign up need it the least, because they are already the most enlightened about Indigenous cultural safety. The people that need it the most are the ones that probably wouldn’t take the time for the training unless they were required to.”

By contrast, the First Nations Health Authority commits to providing “comprehensive, mandatory and ongoing cultural safety and humility training for FNHA employees and embed cultural safety and humility into FNHA’s processes, policies, resources, initiatives, and services.”

Wright Cardinal explains the importance of this training for those who work within the health-care community, based on her expertise in child and youth care.

“If you don’t understand why an Indigenous person hesitates or is scared to go to the hospital, then you need more training,” she says.

Another route to addressing anti-Indigenous racism in health care, according to Wright Cardinal, is to increase support for Indigenous youth to complete their education and pursue medical professions if they desire.

“Some of us are meant to work within the system, to be a part of positive change,” she says, adding that advocacy programs need to be expanded and made broadly accessible.

“Advocacy support needs to be available to young people who go to the hospital, stating they are in mental distress and need help.”

Including Indigenous perspectives

Black is beginning a PhD program at the University of Victoria, focusing on Coast Salish wellness. She says that Indigenous perspectives on wellness need to be brought into health-care systems.

“We have a medical system that isolates specific symptoms,” says Black. “Doctors and nurses are trained … to identify a particular ailment and determine a diagnosis. That isn’t in many of our Indigenous communities or Indigenous teachings. What presents physically is often the final manifestation of what’s happening for a person, or it’s an aspect of what’s happening for a person. When we look at things from a holistic lens, there are multiple reasons as to why a person is needing help.”

Black adds that a wellness system built from Indigenous teachings would likely look very different.

“To listen to what our knowledge keepers, our doctors of the land have to say about health and wellness and taking care of family members when they’re sick — I don’t think that we would hear, ‘We need this big building where they are isolated on their own. They have to explain for themselves to strangers what’s going on for them. We won’t have any spiritual practices or ceremonies, and they’ll be heavily medicated.’ … I just don’t think that’s what we would hear.”

To underscore the point, Black recalls the rally on July 21 in support of her son below his hospital window.

“We gathered together in a peaceful way, in a circle — various leaders and persons who had the authority within the community to speak. And then we drummed up in front of the hospital so that Connor could see us. We know that brought him some healing. Our songs, prayers, our drumming together brought him comfort. Not having that as part of a system that is supposed to help people get well… It’s a problem.”

Sutton, too, hopes his story will result in positive changes for others. His mother shared his statement in an email: “Thanks to everyone for all you did to support me. I’m proud to be Native and I hope my experience can help other Native young people get better treatment when they need it.”