Inuit class-action lawsuit to allege racism in Canada’s health-care system

The Qikiqtani General Hospital in Iqaluit. A class-action lawsuit in the works will seek damages on behalf of Inuit, First Nations and Métis who have suffered racial discrimination while in Canada’s health-care system. (Travis Burke/CBC)
Lawyers known for their representation of Indigenous northerners are preparing a class-action lawsuit on behalf of Inuit who have faced discrimination in Canada’s health-care system.

If the lawsuit proceeds, it is expected to seek hundreds of millions of dollars in damages.

The civil suit would represent Inuit discriminated against while in care in southern facilities outside Nunavut, and in some cases the Northwest Territories. The suit may expand to include discrimination in the Qikiqtani General Hospital in Iqaluit, and could include First Nations and Métis claimants.

“Racism is alive and well and always was in Canada,” said lawyer Steven Cooper in a CBC interview.

“It may be a little less obvious and a little less frequent than we see in places like the United States.”

But Cooper said this treatment of Inuit by government and health-care representatives “is nothing new.”

Cooper Regal lawyers, members of Masuch Law LLP, have won high-profile cases in the North. Most recently, they were legal counsel for Nunavut Ahiarmiut, who won a cash settlement and apology from the federal government over their forced relocation decades ago.

Lawyer Steven Cooper says it’s still early days for the lawsuit. (CBC)

But Cooper said this lawsuit is inspired by accounts of contemporary discrimination.

“We’re talking right now, right here,” he said.

Examples of discrimination collected include the horrific. In one case, Cooper described a five-month-old aborted fetus being “cut up and thrown away in sight of the mother.”

“The fact that is happening now in Canada is a problem and it screams for legal attention,” Cooper said.

“It screams for condemnation and this is a really good example of where class actions are used not only to redeem the parties in terms of what they’ve already done but to be a reason why governments and institutions change their behaviour.”

Hundreds expected to tell their stories

Cooper said so far dozens of people have come forward to share their stories, but he expects the number to climb into the hundreds once word of the lawsuit gets out.

It will be a few months, he said, before anything is filed in court. Potential representative claimants have been identified, as have potential defendants in the case.

“It will involve the government of Canada,” Cooper said in an email. “It may also involve a number of provincial governments administering health care under contract to either the territory, Canada or both, and it may include health-care institutions who employed those who we say participated in discriminatory delivery of services.”

Cooper said it’s too early to say definitively the lawsuit will proceed.

“Establishing the circumstance of class action do not always mean that the class action will proceed [and] if it does proceed, whether in fact it will be certified.”

Cooper’s law office is now looking for stories of discrimination in health care experienced by Inuit inside or outside Nunavut.

Written by Walter Strong, with files from Kieran Oudshoorn

Related stories from around the North:

Canada: Canada’s PM apologizes to Inuit for ‘colonial’ mistreatment of tuberculosis patients, CBC News

Finland: Finland’s indigenous Sámi score victory in fishing dispute, Yle News

Norway: Inuit, Sami leading the way in Indigenous self-determination, study says, CBC News

Sweden: Calls for more Indigenous protection in Sweden on Sami national day, Radio Sweden

United States: Alaska’s state-run psychiatric hospital unsafe for workers, report concludes, Alaska Public Media

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