Fr. Peter Bisson

Fighting the ‘virus of racism’

  • October 23, 2020

Canada’s Jesuits are asking Canadians to examine their collective conscience in the wake of Joyce Echaquan’s death in a hospital in Joliette, Que.

The 37-year-old mother of seven recorded racist verbal abuse by nursing staff at Centre hospitalier de Lanaudière in a Facebook Live video Sept. 28. She died in apparent pain a short time later. In response, the Jesuits of Canada have issued a plea to Canadians “to transform the places where the virus of racism lurks within us.”

Nobody can deny that racism exists, or that it is systemic, or that it has been particularly harsh in its effects on Indigenous Canadians, said Fr. Peter Bisson, who heads up the Indigenous relations desk for the Jesuits in Ottawa.

“It’s not just random acts, but patterns that we can come to expect,” Bisson told The Catholic Register. “We don’t like to think of ourselves as racist, but we probably have some racial prejudices. It’s the unconscious stuff that we especially need to be worried about.”

Confronting systemic racism in health care or the Church isn’t easy, said Deacon Michael James Robinson, Indigenous spiritual care provider at Thunder Bay Regional Health Sciences Centre.

“When I saw this thing with Joyce Echaquan, I knew at one point in our history at the hospital that we were there,” said Robinson.

In hiring Robinson, who is a Catholic deacon, a pipe carrier, eagle staff carrier, traditional pow wow dancer and drum carrier, the Thunder Bay hospital has begun to reckon with its past.

“We’ve made a lot of changes for the better in our hospital. Mind you, we haven’t fully eliminated anything by any means,” Robinson said.

One key to better outcomes for Indigenous patients has been more and better spiritual care, said Robinson. Treating people simply as bodies that need to be fixed just doesn’t line up with the Indigenous or Catholic view of health, which includes physical, mental, emotional and spiritual health, he said.

“It’s our spiritual side that never really gets fully looked at nowadays, in modern times,” he said. “I find that (spiritual care) helps a lot of these patients. They’re not revolving door patients after a while. … That gets them out of the discrimination and systemic biases that exist. That address of spirituality is really important.”

Robinson believes white Canadians need to understand how they are also victims of racism. Learning from a young age that Christopher Columbus discovered the Americas, which were already inhabited, or that civilization inevitably evolves into white, European culture, has left white people with a skewed understanding of their own history, he said.

“Systemic racism is just implanted in people’s minds. It becomes a part of who they are, part of their being,” he said. “They don’t even realize that they’re exhibiting these behaviours. They don’t acknowledge it, they can’t see it. In some ways, they’re being victimized themselves.”

“A big challenge in this kind of conversation is changing your idea about your own identity as nice people. That’s been a big part of the conversation with Indigenous people,” said Bisson. “For us, for the Jesuits, it was tough to recognize that there’s a whole dark side to our history with Indigenous people.”

Basilian Fr. Bob Holmes of the Christian Peacemaker Teams and the Basilian Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation committee understands why some people resist the idea of systemic racism. People who don’t regard themselves as racist think of systemic racism as a subtle accusation.

“I’m not guilty of it. But it is our history and it’s still operative. And we need to do something about it. To do nothing is to side with it and to allow it to go on,” Holmes said.

Catholics have the spiritual resources to confront systemic racism, said Bisson.

“At every Mass, we acknowledge that we’re sinners,” he said. “But when someone actually agrees with us, that’s not so easy.”

A little research into history can go a long way, but ultimately a real examination of conscience needs help from other people.

“At some point you will need the help of people who experience racism too,” he said. “But a good start is asking God to show us in what ways are our feelings, thoughts and actions racist.”

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