CPSolvers: Anti-Racism in Medicine Series
Episode 20 – Medical Racism and Indigenous Peoples
Show Notes by Sudarshan (“Sud”) Krishnamurthy
April 4, 2023
Summary: This episode highlights the checkered past of medicine and the advancements in the field that have occurred at the expense of the humanity of Indigenous peoples. During this episode, we hear from Dr. Nav Persaud, a staff physician in the Department of Family and Community Medicine at St. Michael’s Hospital in Unity Health Toronto, and Dr. Alika Lafontaine, the current President of the Canadian Medical Association. Together, our guests explain how Indigenous knowledge systems are the foundation of modern medicine and also share strategies to promote truth and reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples in North America. This discussion is hosted by Alec Calac and Gillette Pierce.
Episode Learning Objectives
After listening to this episode, learners will be able to…
- Explain how the dark legacy of discrimination and deliberate oppression of Indigenous Peoples has led to present-day disparities across the world
- Describe how medicine has held some white men to high esteem, even when they harbored significant racist and sexist notions
- Identify the role of Indigenous knowledge systems in shaping much of modern medicine today, yet experiencing erasure from the mainstream
- Written and produced by: Alec J. Calac, Gillette Pierce, Sudarshan Krishnamurthy, Rohan Khazanchi, MD, MPH, Dereck Paul, MD, Jazzmin Williams, Victor A. Lopez-Carmen MPH, Ashley Cooper, Naomi F. Fields, LaShyra Nolen, Jennifer Tsai MD, MEd, Chioma Onuoha, Ayana Watkins, Michelle Ogunwole MD, Utibe R. Essien MD, MPH
- Hosts: Alec J. Calac and Gillette Pierce
- Infographic: Creative Edge Design
- Audio Edits: Caroline Cao
- Show Notes: Sudarshan (“Sud”) Krishnamurthy
- Guests: Dr. Nav Persaud and Dr. Alika Lafontaine
0:45 Episode Introduction
1:10 Guest Introductions
3:30 Existing global disparities among Indigenous Peoples
6:00 How access to medications are impacted among Indigenous Peoples in Canada
8:30 Framing around the Design of Structures in Canada to suppress Indigenous voices
13:30 Legacy of Osler and the importance of rediscovering forgotten dark histories
16:20 Dehumanization of individuals belonging to marginalized groups by the healthcare system
27:50 Modern medicine and its roots in Indigenous knowledge systems
31:30 Provision of healthcare to Indigenous Peoples in Canada
34:50 Alec’s own advocacy around renaming a campus parking garage
36:55 Weaponization of professionalism
45:00 Clinical takeaways and practical tools for clinician listeners
- Indigenous communities around the world experience significant disparities in life expectancy, burden of disease, and socioeconomic status, due to deliberate exclusion of Indigenous Peoples from the mainstream and suppression of their voices in the design of the system.
- Within medicine, we tend to hold white men from history books in high esteem, often without recognizing the dark legacy that accompanied their lives. William Osler is one such example who, along with numerous other sexist and racist misconducts, took remains of Indigenous people with him as a gift to his mentor in Germany, that is still held by a German museum who refuses to return it.
- The dehumanization of individuals of color at the margins of society by the healthcare system is not simply a thing of the past, and is certainly a persistent phenomenon. Cindy Gladue, Brian Sinclair, and Joyce Echaquan are three Indigenous individuals who suffered immense harm at the hands of the healthcare system.
- There is strength in reconciling Indigenous history, and we must prevent further erasure of Indigenous knowledge systems. The solutions to these issues do not fall upon one community’s shoulders, but instead on the shoulders of all of us along with the oppressive systems that have led us here.
- Alec begins by contextualizing this episode with the fact that although Indigenous people make up 6% of the global population, they compose 15% of the global population experiencing extreme poverty. Additionally, Indigenous communities experience lower life expectancy, higher burden of disease, and lower socioeconomic status compared to non-Indigenous Peoples. These disparities are likely attributable, in part, to the disruption of Indigenous knowledge systems, inadequate infrastructure, and poor identification of health data among these groups, rather than individual behavior. [Supplementary Resource for Listeners: CPSolvers Episode 12: Addressing Anti-Indigenous Racism in Medicine with team members Alec Calac and Victor Anthony Lopez-Carmen]
- Nav discusses that despite publicly funded healthcare systems in Canada and federal protections in place for certain Indigenous groups, Indigenous populations and other groups facing discrimination and historic oppression are much more likely to report not being able to take medications due to cost. Although healthcare services are publicly funded, access to medications depends on private or public insurance and is linked with employment. While some have the impression that there is a safety net in Canada for life-saving medications, Nav still sees patients in his practice who are harmed by the system and not able to afford life-saving medications, many of them Indigenous, and this is a violation of their right to access essential medicines.
- Alika expands on Nav’s framing by highlighting the three broad demographics in Canada: the Inuit, the Métis, and the First Nations. In contrast to settlers in the United States where “conquering” through deception was a priority, the spread of settlers was more so through the signing of agreements that were never lived up to. Indigenous peoples in Canada have deliberately been left out of the mainstream to ensure their voices were suppressed in the design of the system.
- Alika elaborates on the history of Indigenous populations in Canada and how they would conduct X-Rays on the Inuit children, and ship these kids away for 3 to 10 years if they found tuberculosis in the lungs, without even allowing the children to say goodbye to their parents. Alika recalls stories of individuals in Ottawa who were on the same floor for several years, only to realize that they were members of the same family after being placed in these TB sanatoriums and crossing paths there.
- Nav begins to discuss how Osler is still revered as one of the most prominent historical physicians in Canada and the United States. A colleague brought information to Nav that Osler had brought remains of Indigenous people as a gift to one of his mentors in Germany. This led him to look into Osler’s history a little further, and Nav found it easy to find other instances of racist and sexist misconduct by William Osler. These remains are still in a museum in Germany, with no plan of return to Indigenous communities. [Supplementary Resource for Listeners: Read Dr. Persaud’s initial article on Osler here]
- Osler lived in the time of Numbered Treaties and the North-West Rebellion under Louis Riel, when Indigenous rights were front and center. It is ridiculous to consider that a physician brought Indigenous remains with him as a gift during this period in history, when Osler knew Indigenous people were fighting for their rights and lives. So, we must rethink the esteem that we hold white men like Osler in, and rediscover the forgotten history that accompanies them. [Supplementary Resource for Listeners: You can read more about the North-West Rebellion here]
- Alika discusses the dehumanization of individuals of color and other identities who exist at the margins within the healthcare system and emphasizes that these are not phenomena of the past. He highlights the hostility within the healthcare system and how healthcare must be a service that is available equally to everybody, and not treated as a favor being done to individuals. He narrates the stories of Cindy Gladue, Brian Sinclair, and Joyce Echaquan, all of whom suffered immense harm at the hands of the healthcare system as Indigenous individuals. [Supplementary Resource for Listeners: You can read about Cindy Gladue, Brian Sinclair, and Joyce Echaquan here]
- Nav expands on this aspect of dehumanization of Indigenous peoples and speaks about how the Indigenous remains are being treated in Germany today. Although there is guidance that they must be returned, they have decided to retain them. In addition, there is writing within these skulls with numbers written on the inside, as if to catalog them. The museum has also added multiple barriers for those who wish to rightfully receive these remains, and has placed the onus on these communities for these remains to be returned.
- Alec importantly highlights that while these harms might seem historical and like things of the past, they have taken place within one or two generations and even today. He discusses his experiences as an Indigenous person in California who attends a medical school that begrudgingly decided to return Indigenous remains, from one of the largest collections in the world.
- Alika talks about strength in knowing his history. He discusses the medical knowledge of settlers in Canada believing in four humors and the practice of bloodletting to relieve sickness. At that time, Indigenous Peoples were harvesting plants at their peak potency and concentrating these plants in teas, and delivering medications through oral and transdermal routes. He talks about how Atropine, a commonly used drug by anesthesiologists like Alika, is derived from Belladonna and how folks practicing traditional medicine use Belladonna.
- Alika also delves deeper into the provision of healthcare to Indigenous peoples in Canada. He mentions that healthcare was provided to Indigenous peoples rooted in a charitable effort, rather than as a basic human right. It is important to move beyond being nice to each other, and begin to think about the requirements and obligations we have to each other as human beings.
- Alec goes on to highlight that as much as we have gained, we have much more to fight for. In episode 12, we discussed how the American Indian and Alaskan Native life expectancy as of 2021 was equivalent to that of the American public in the 1940s. The solution to these issues shouldn’t fall upon one or a few of our shoulders, but instead upon the shoulders of all of us along with the systems that have the resources and infrastructures to inform change.
- Alec used Nav’s article to advocate for the renaming of a parking garage on campus that was named after William Osler. Our spaces reflect our values, so the question he asked was why they had a parking garage named after an individual who has no relation to the local community in San Diego? We think about the legacy in medicine, but forget about the community we are in. [Supplementary Resource for Listeners: Read Alec’s Editorial about his advocacy related to renaming a street and parking structure in his medical school campus here.]
- Nav describes professionalism as a vague concept that is often used to oppress individuals from racialized and marginalized backgrounds. Professionalism is often antithetical to a rights-based approach to medicine, where every member of a team feels comfortable to speak up when everything is not right with a patient’s care and professionalism can scare people from speaking out when needed.
- Alika expands on this explanation of professionalism in terms of what is acceptable, decided by whoever is in control. It can be used to amplify what leaders think is important and suppress what leaders do not like, demonstrating the importance of leadership from diverse backgrounds and varied lived experiences. Retaliation can be severe to violations of professionalism, and it’s hard to know the effects of retaliation unless one has experienced these themselves. [Supplementary Resource for Listeners: Read about the experience Dr. Lafontaine describes regarding his own experience with reporting unprofessional and unacceptable conduct here]
- Nav states that it is important for us to reflect on what has happened and recollect all of the work people have done to chronicle anti-Indigenous racism. Racism is not new, and there have been numerous reports that document racism and anti-Indigenous discrimination over decades and centuries. We must respect what has happened, and recognize as non-Indigenous people that we benefit from advocacy and efforts of Indigenous peoples for Indigenous rights over generations.
- Alika emphasizes that the point of this conversation is not to make anyone feel like they are a bad person, but instead to help them acknowledge that in this healthcare system we provide both health and harm. Providing our patients with more space and ensuring our patients feel human again is a great first step. It is also important to remember that in the course of restructuring power, there are winners and losers and we may not all have the same voice around the table that we did before. We entered medicine to help people, and sometimes the best way to help people is by getting out of the way and allowing for others to step forward.
- Persaud N, Butts H, Berger P. William Osler: saint in a “White man’s dominion”. CMAJ. 2020;192(45):E1414-E1416. doi:10.1503/cmaj.201567
- Reid P, Cormack D, Paine SJ. Colonial histories, racism and health-The experience of Māori and Indigenous peoples. Public Health. 2019;172:119-124. doi:10.1016/j.puhe.2019.03.027
- Redvers N, Blondin B. Traditional Indigenous medicine in North America: A scoping review. PLoS One. 2020;15(8):e0237531. Published 2020 Aug 13. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0237531
- Fredericks CF. Mapping the Sustainable Development Goals onto Indian Nations. In: Miller RJ, Jorgensen M, Stewart D, eds. Creating Private Sector Economies in Native America: Sustainable Development through Entrepreneurship. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; 2019:185-194. doi:10.1017/9781108646208.011
- Browne AJ, Lavoie JG, McCallum MJL, Canoe CB. Addressing anti-Indigenous racism in Canadian health systems: multi-tiered approaches are required. Can J Public Health. 2022;113(2):222-226. doi:10.17269/s41997-021-00598-1
- Persaud N, Ally M, Woods H, et al. Racialised people in clinical guideline panels. Lancet. 2022;399(10320):139-140. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(21)02759-8
- Lafontaine AT, Lafontaine CJ. A retrospective on reconciliation by design. Healthc Manage Forum. 2019;32(1):15-19. doi:10.1177/0840470418794702
- Lafontaine A. Indigenous health disparities: a challenge and an opportunity. Can J Surg. 2018;61(5):300-301. doi:10.1503/cjs.013917
- Durand-Moreau Q, Lafontaine J, Ward J. Work and health challenges of Indigenous people in Canada. Lancet Glob Health. 2022;10(8):e1189-e1197. doi:10.1016/S2214-109X(22)00203-0
- Okpalauwaekwe U, Ballantyne C, Tunison S, Ramsden VR. Enhancing health and wellness by, for and with Indigenous youth in Canada: a scoping review. BMC Public Health. 2022;22(1):1630. Published 2022 Aug 29. doi:10.1186/s12889-022-14047-2
- Berger P. Canadian Physicians’ Breach of Duty to Patients and Communities from the Acquisition of Indigenous Skulls in the 19th Century to the Abandonment of People with AIDS in the 20th Century. J Biocommun. 2021;45(1):E13. Published 2021 Aug 15. doi:10.5210/jbc.v45i1.10849
- Calac AJ. Opinion: William Osler desecrated Indigenous remains. His name should be removed from UCSD. The San Diego Union Tribune. https://www.sandiegouniontribune.com/opinion/commentary/story/2021-08-24/sir-william-osler-uc-san-diego-indigenous-skulls-racist
- Canadian Press. Alberta surgeon handed 4-month suspension for hanging noose on operating-room door. Haida Gwaii Observer. https://www.haidagwaiiobserver.com/news/alberta-surgeon-handed-4-month-suspension-for-hanging-noose-on-operating-room-door/
The hosts and guests report no relevant financial disclosures.
Persaud N, Lafontaine A, Calac A, Pierce G, Krishnamurthy S, Essien UR, Fields NF, Lopez-Carmen VA, Cooper A, Nolen L, Onuoha C, Watkins A, Williams J, Tsai J, Ogunwole M, Khazanchi R. “Episode 20: Advancing Medicine at the Expense of Indigenous Humanity” The Clinical Problem Solvers Podcast – Antiracism in Medicine Series. https://clinicalproblemsolving.com/antiracism-in-medicine/. April 4, 2023