I’ve Been Lucky, but Indigenous Women Deserve Better Health Outcomes

Our health-care systems discriminate against Indigenous women. It’s time for that to end.

A woman sitting across from a doctor wipes her nose with a tissue.
Photo: Rawpixel

I’m someone who bends too much, but never breaks. That’s not an inspirational statement about my tenacity — it’s strictly a medical distinction.

I have joint hypermobility syndrome, a genetic disorder that affects my joints and connective tissue. This condition has led to an above-average amount of contact with the health-care system throughout my life. I also spent five years battling anorexia and bulimia — physical manifestations of my desire to disappear — which led to hospitalizations, and more contact with the medical community.

I am an Indigenous woman of Kwakwa̱ka̱ʼwakw ancestry, 36 years old, living in suburban British Columbia. My personal experiences receiving health care have been positive, but I see my experience isn’t consistent with what others like me endure. Recent studies confirm what I already know from my friends: Indigenous women are not well served by the health-care system.

I’ve been a patient often, though those who know me might not describe me as often patient. I wish for change. I long for justice. I’m impatient for equity of access and treatment for all people, but especially for women with whom I share ancestry.

Studies confirm what I know from my friends: Indigenous women are not well served by the health-care system.

It’s clear we have a long way to go. Earlier this year, the BC Women’s Health Foundation released a study called In Her Words. It found that women in my province experience significant health inequities, and that Indigenous women fared worst of all, with 70% under the age of 45 reporting challenges accessing health care.

The report states: “Many Indigenous women have experienced high levels of racism with practitioners making assumptions about their life experiences — an illustration of the ongoing impacts of colonization.”

One patient’s story from In Her Words exemplifies these assumptions: “I have recurring pancreatitis. They stigmatized me as an alcoholic, but I don’t drink. I was hospitalized, my levels went up while I was in the hospital, and then they apologized for accusing me of drinking.”

Many elders would rather die than access care, because of their past trauma.

Another quote in the report particularly struck me: “I know many elders who will absolutely refuse to go to health-care. They [would] rather die than access care… this is because of their past trauma.” The health-care system specifically, and governments generally, have traumatized Indigenous women in so many ways: coerced sterilization (as recently as 2018), birth alerts (where health-care professionals notify child protective services when Indigenous children are born, increasing the likelihood of interventions), restricting our movements, forbidding us from voting or hiring a lawyer, taking our kids away to residential schools and brainwashing them against our culture and traditions.

These shockingly recent colonialist intrusions haven’t just shattered Indigenous people’s trust in institutions, they’ve actually caused us health problems. In a review of 61 studies looking at residential schools’ health impacts, 43 revealed long-term consequences, for the person who attended and following generations too. According to one of those studies: “Intergenerational effects were found… among women who had parents or grandparents attend residential schools, with women reporting that familial attendance at residential school had had an enduring impact on their lives and mental health.”

But I don’t need studies and reports to tell me this, I see it in my own Indigenous social circle. I reached out to Indigenous women I respect dearly to ask what they want from health-care professionals. Here are their requests:

  • Listen to us and believe us when we talk about our physical health, overall wellness, and life experiences.
  • Honour our cultural differences, and create space for our culture to be respected when we access medical treatment.
  • Respect us and our families.
  • Don’t make assumptions about our substance use or parenting ability based on our ancestry.
  • Take the time to learn about us.
  • Be aware of how past trauma can make physical contact uncomfortable.

These aren’t unreasonable requests; we’re asking to be treated with humanity. It’s hard enough being sick without someone making judgements about your lifestyle based on their preconceptions. Getting help shouldn’t infringe on someone’s dignity.

Healthier Indigenous women could change the world.

My friends and I aren’t the first to ask for these improvements. The National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls included equitable health-care treatment for Indigenous people in its Calls for Justice. Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission on the residential school system recommended that health-care professionals learn the history that led to generations of inequity and ill-health, and acquire the necessary soft skills to provide quality care to all.

Healthier Indigenous women could change the world. We’d be better able to support ourselves financially, and teach our children about healthy choices we’d learned from supportive health-care practitioners. We could take on more challenges, with stronger bodies and boosted confidence from being listened to and taken seriously.

I am an Indigenous woman, who by reason of genetics, often bends but rarely breaks. I wish for a health-care system that will bend to accommodate Indigenous women and what we need, having been pushed almost to our breaking point by colonial systems. We are resilient and strong. If the health system is meant to keep us that way, we shouldn’t feel we have to brave it.

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