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Nurse says she won't rest until Indigenous patients 'actually feel safe' seeking health care

This story is part of a series examining systemic discrimination against Indigenous patients within the nursing profession in B.C. Read Part 1 and Part 2 in the series.

"I was in year three and doing a practicum on the floor and one of the faculty told me that I didn't belong there. I needed to go back to my people," the Dzawada̱ʼenux̱w nurse told CBC News.

"The message was loud and clear — being told that I didn't belong in the profession and I just needed to go back to my reserve."

Today, Dick is the director for cultural safety and humility and clinical practice for the B.C. Ministry of Health. But she said the last 18 years of her career have shown her how much work is needed to eliminate anti-Indigenous racism from the nursing profession and the medical system at large.

Dick's career has been driven by a passion to address discrimination in health-care that has contributed to the deaths of people like her aunt Debbie, who died of a head injury in 2008 after doctors dismissed her symptoms as signs of intoxication. 

But Dick says she's been fighting an uphill battle.

"My voice around Indigenous-specific racism for patients and families who are experiencing significant trauma and preventable deaths … was shut down on a regular basis. I wasn't allowed to use the word racism," she said.

Dick spoke to CBC as part of a series about anti-Indigenous racism within nursing, and how the province's largest regulator of health professionals, the B.C. College of Nurses and Midwives, is trying to address that pervasive problem.

Her story makes it clear that patients aren't the only ones hurt by discrimination in the health-care system.

'Just told over and over again to be silent'

Dick said she's witnessed some improvements in how Indigenous nurses and patients are treated since the 2020 In Plain Sight report revealed widespread racism within the health-care system, but the change isn't happening quickly enough.

"Until we can have true testimony from Indigenous people that they actually feel safe and they trust the health-care system and want to access it … that's when I'll be able to sleep better at night," she said.

Dick is a graduate of the nursing program at Kwantlen Polytechnic University, where the current dean of health said many steps have been taken to address anti-Indigenous racism over the last two decades.

"We're very sorry to hear of Tania's experience many years ago," Sharmen Lee said in a written statement to CBC.

She said the school "has been working towards embedding decolonization and Indigenization" into the nursing curriculum, and recently unveiled its xéʔelɬ KPU Pathway to Systemic Transformation.

Dick says what happened in nursing school was only a taste of what was to come as she climbed the professional ladder.

"I was continuously told point blank that I was not a leader — I didn't have any leadership skills, I had nothing to offer the profession — and just told over and over again to be silent," Dick said.

Even when she was elected president of the Association of Nurses and Nurse Practitioners of B.C. (ARNBC) for a two-year term beginning in 2017, Dick says she faced an uphill battle.

"There was a group of individuals who were consistently telling me that I didn't belong and actually fought and resourced processes to get me out of there," she said.

WATCH | Tania Dick says battle against racism will take time: Tania Dick says she won’t be satisfied with the changes currently underway in the health-care system until all Indigenous patients feel safe seeking care.

The ARNBC no longer exists, and has since been folded into a larger association called the Nurses and Nurse Practitioners of B.C. (NNPBC). That group says it is committed to ongoing anti-racist action.

"We understand that Tania Dick's experiences with ARNBC were traumatizing and caused harm," the organization said in a written statement.

"It is NNPBC's responsibility to learn from what took place in our progenitor associations. We also acknowledge and apologize for mistakes NNPBC has made in our own organizational relationships with Indigenous nurses and with Indigenous communities."

When it comes to fixing these problems, Dick says the nursing college has a major role to play. As the regulator for nurses and midwives across B.C., it has the power to set standards for professional behaviour and discipline nurses who fail to meet those standards.

Dick said it's long past time for people with the power to change things to take on the burden of eradicating anti-Indigenous racism from the health-care system, rather than leaving it to people like her who've also been hurt by the abuse over and over again.

"This is not our problem as Indigenous people. This is the problem of general society that's mistreating us and stereotyping us and looking at us through a racist lens that we're less than and deserve less than," she said.