Brian Sinclair’s story finally being told

New book explores life and death in a racialized health-care system

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Structures of Indifference, published by the University of Manitoba Press, looks at the life and death of Brian Sinclair in the context of colonialism. Sinclair, 45, was sent to the Health Sciences Centre (HSC), by community health-care staff, for a catheter change. Sinclair was found dead in his wheelchair 34 hours later, untreated by emergency room staff.

The book stems from the work of the Brian Sinclair Working Group that was formed to examine racism as a factor in Sinclair’s death. It established a cross-discipline approach to research, analyze and address discrimination in the health-care system. In 2014, they hosted a public forum in which health researchers discussed how discriminatory assumptions have direct effects on the range of decisions in health care, including treatment decisions.

Mary Jane McCallum, U of W department of history professor, has been working with the group since 2014 and wrote the book with her co-author, Adele Perry, over the course of approximately the past year.  McCallum said the goal of the book was to “make racism and indifference in the health-care system visible.”

“There were several ways that Brian Sinclair was misrecognized in life and death, and these and other misrecognitions go on all the time for many other people who face anti-Indigenous racism,” she said.

“For Sinclair, he was misrecognized as drunk and as homeless and these misrecognitions led directly to the failure to provide treatment.”

Jarvis Brownlie, U of M history professor, was unsurprised by Sinclair’s death. He said that Canada has a terrible record of treating Indigenous people in the health care system.

“Indigenous people have always had less access to health care than your average Canadian citizen and this remains true, whether they live in Winnipeg or a fly-in reserve,” he said.

McCallum said that other accounts taken during the inquest portrayed Sinclair as having an equal part in his own death as it appeared that he “frequented hospitals too much.”

“It is the portrayal of Indigenous people as already sick and dying that frees those responsible of culpability,” she said. “It also reassures settlers of the rightfulness of their dominance.”

Brownlie said this portrayal is not new. “I could find you multiple quotations from Indian Affairs records discussing the various reasons why Indigenous people did not deserve equal health care such as claims that they bothered doctors for ‘trivial ailments,’ that they were responsible for their own injuries and therefore basically should expect to suffer and that they were best left with their ‘Indian dope’ to cure themselves,” he said.

McCallum said racism was not considered to be a factor in Sinclair’s death and that the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority claimed the issue was in the way the hospital processes its patients, not in the treatment given to Sinclair.

During her time with the working group, it created exercises to situate participants in Sinclair’s final hours. In the exercises, participants were asked to set an alarm for 34 hours in the future to reflect on the time that Sinclair spent in the HSC emergency room.

“It’s an imperfect exercise, because, during this time, Brian was of course in a lot of pain, especially as the infection spread through his body and he was dying,” she said.

McCallum said she researched and wrote the book as she felt she could bring her skills in historical research to shed light onto the subject.

“It is important to see that Sinclair’s story is not a rarity.”

Structures of Indifference can be bought at amazon.ca and uofmpress.ca.