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MONAGUE: Health scare gives glimpse into 'systemic monster'

Indigenous people in 'double jeopardy' due to inherent, longtime obstacles coupled with crisis in hospitals across Ontario, says columnist
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During the past few months there has been much talk about the state of the health-care system in the province of Ontario. In particular, the closure of hospital floors and emergency wards throughout the province.

Generally, people in Ontario don’t pay attention to that talk. For them, it is merely background noise. They are unaffected by it. It is not a part of their day-to-day existence.

As an Indigenous person I worry about the state of health care in Ontario. I worry because I am already systemically at a disadvantage to receiving the appropriate care should I need it.

The level of anxiety that an Indigenous person has when they must place themselves into the hands of a health-care system that racially profiles and discriminates against them is often compounded when they are denied care in these institutions.

During one of my most recent trips to a local after-hours clinic to be treated for a sudden illness, I was scolded by a medical professional and told, “If you’re here for pain medication, you won’t get any!” This professional profiled me, made assumptions of who I was based on my race. They then made a disparaging comment and threatened to deny me treatment, were I to need pain medication. 

That person’s profiling was inaccurate for a couple of reasons; one, that they diagnosed me and recommended treatment (administering pain medication), without examining me. And two, that they didn’t realize that I was astute enough to counter their denial of care with an informed opinion. Lastly, that I was assertive enough to ask for their name so that I might file a complaint against them. 

Others are not as willing to confront the systemic monster before them as I did, and they will leave without receiving care or they will decide not to attend health-care facilities at all.

A week ago, a close family member was suddenly taken ill. The illness placed him in a grave situation where if he didn’t receive emergency medical care he would most surely pass away. His situation was so grim that when assessed by a physician who just happened to be visiting the local health centre at Christian Island, family members were told to rush him as quickly as possible to the nearest emergency ward.

This would literally be a race for his life! 

But first there was a 20-minute ferry ride across the channel to the mainland, which seemed like hours. The ferry ride in the channel between Christian Island and the mainland can often seem long and tedious but on this day, it escalated to long and tortuous.  

Finally, once the ship docked at Cedar Point, the journey to care continued with a 30-minute drive to the hospital. The family felt some comfort knowing that the physician who attended to their loved one at Christian Island Health Centre had informed them that he was calling ahead so that the patient would be admitted as soon as they entered the doors to the hospital. The situation was that dire.

On route the patient’s breathing was shallow, and he kept nodding off while his daughter struggled to keep him awake.

When they finally reached the emergency ward, the patient had to walk up a ramp to get into the hospital. The family was surprised that he was not admitted right away. They were led to believe that he would be processed immediately. Apparently, that wasn’t the case. 

So, they waited… three hours!

Finally, they received a call from the physician who had recommended the patient attend the hospital. There was complete exasperation at the other end when the physician learned that after three hours, they were still waiting to have someone see the patient.

The physician said he would ensure that their loved one would be administered the care he needed and ended the phone call. Within minutes, staff rushed in to attend to the patient’s needs. By this point he had become unconscious and ashen. He was nearer to death with each passing minute.

My family member was rushed into the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) and hooked up to monitors of every array. He was given oxygen to breathe and a multitude of tests to try to determine the exact cause of his condition.

On that second day of being admitted, he became conscious again and was able to speak. He was told that he was a very lucky man and that he was very close to succumbing to his illness.


I am a writer and an observer of life. I hoped that the lack of care that my family member received at the onset of his visit to the emergency ward was not a result of the systemic racism that seems now to be inherent. I did observe that the hospital is seriously understaffed. For that I don’t fault the professionals who work there.

I observed that the system is in such a precarious state that a patient like my family member may not receive the proper attention because hospitals and emergency wards are understaffed.

The powers that be, the politicians, must treat this crisis of care with the same level of urgency as those who attended to my family member when he finally made it past the gate. They need to save it! 

The situation has become extreme.

It seems that an Indigenous person is now placed in double jeopardy when seeking medical attention given the obstacles already inherent within the system and coupled with the crisis in emergency wards and hospital floors across the province.

The issues plaguing the health-care system are no longer background noise to me. I hear them now, loudly. I have vowed to observe things more closely so that I can speak for those who cannot.

This is an emergency!

Jeff Monague is a former chief of the Beausoleil First Nation on Christian Island, former treaty research director with the Anishnabek (Union of Ontario Indians), and veteran of the Canadian Forces. Monague, who taught the Ojibwe language with the Simcoe County District School Board and Georgian College, is the manager of Springwater Provincial Park.