A successful campaign against medical colonialism

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A successful campaign against medical colonialism

Samir Shaheen-Hussain is a pediatric emergency physician who practices in Montreal and a professor in the Department of Pediatrics in the Faculty of Medicine at McGill University. He has also been involved in grassroots social justice organizing around issues like Indigenous solidarity, migrant justice, and anti-police brutality for more than a decade and a half. Scott Neigh interviews him about the #aHand2Hold campaign, which won a victory against medical colonialism last year in Quebec.

Settler colonialism and white supremacy aren't just about the feelings in individual hearts, and they aren't freestanding social evils that exist separate from the rest of life. Rather, they are part of how life in North America is organized, and they weave through all kinds of different institutions and areas of social life – including institutions that we like to think of as being about "helping," like the health care system.

In remote and northern communities, when someone is seriously injured or ill, they might be moved by emergency air transport to a hospital in an urban centre for treatment. In Quebec, for a long time this has been done by a government agency called Quebec Aeromedical Evacuations (abbreviated EVAQ in French). For many years, when it was a child that had to be transported, EVAQ would not let a caregiver accompany them. While this applied to both non-Indigenous and Indigeous people living in remote and northern communities, it was consistently Inuit and Cree communities in the far north that were most severely affected. There were multiple efforts over close to thirty years to get the government of Quebec and EVAQ to change this practice, but they consistently refused.

It is hard to imagine a scenario in which it wouldn't be traumatic to separate a child who is already in distress from their caregiver and force them to go to an unfamiliar place, surrounded by unfamiliar people, who would then do who knows what to them as part of their treatment. The absence of a caregiver also makes it impossible to get proper consent for procedures. In addition, younger Inuit children often speak no English or French, and medical staff in southern hospitals don't generally speak Inuktitut, making it even more isolating for the children and preventing medical staff from asking basic diagnostic questions.

All of this is in the context of long colonial histories of settler professionals going into Indigenous communities and removing children from Indigenous families, whether that is to send them to residential schools, to put them in the child welfare system, or for some other purpose. According to today's guest, there were even instances in Quebec in earlier decades of officials taking Inuit kids for medical treatment then telling their families that they had died and fostering them out to families in the south.

Though his hospital sees hundreds of cases of this sort every year, there were two in particular in the summer of 2017 that inspired Shaheen-Hussain to take action to get this policy changed. He and a few colleagues started out by doing research. They found, crucially, that no other jurisdiction in Canada had a policy like EVAQ's, and they found that standards of care published in the medical research literature across North America and Europe recommended that children be accompanied by caregivers during emergency transport and care.

In December of 2017, the pediatric emergency and pediatric intensive care departments at his hospital sent a letter to the Quebec government presenting what they had found and asking for a change in policy. By late Janaury 2018, they still had not received a positive response, so they went to the media, and launched the #aHand2Hold campaign. That set off a whole chain of events – including a flood media coverage, endorsements from other hospitals and professional bodies, people sharing tragic stories, an early promise by the Quebec government to change with no evidence of actual change, autonomously organized petitions and actions and confronting of politicians, and finally in September of 2018, an actual change in the practice. Children from remote and northern communities in Quebec can now be accompanied by a caregiver when they are flown south for medical care. Shaheen-Hussain talks about how the campaign was organized, and reflects on this relatively institutional initiative from his perspective as someone with long experience engaging in more grassroots and anti-authoritarian political work.

Image: Pxhere

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Talking Radical Radio brings you grassroots voices from across Canada, giving you the chance to hear many different people that are facing many different struggles talk about what they do, why they do it, and how they do it, in the belief that such listening is a crucial step in strengthening all of our efforts to change the world. To learn more about the show check out its website here. You can also follow them on FaceBook or Twitter, or contact scottneigh@talkingradical.ca to join our weekly email update list.

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