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Finding my voice
Aug 17, 2020, By: Nicole Johnstone

This article is among the first on Canadian Nurse to focus on the issue of racism — particularly anti-Black racism — in nursing and health care. Our aim is to give a voice to those who have experienced racism or want to speak out against it.

Takeaway messages

  • Racism and discrimination exist in health care; people are judged by the colour of their skin or their illness.
  • Regardless of their situation, patients deserve to be treated with compassion, not victimized in a health-care setting for something out of their control.
  • “White passing” means “passing” for a “white” person and not being treated with the same racism that other Indigenous people experience.

My name is Nicole and I am a registered nurse. I have been a nurse for 15 years, but I have been Indigenous my whole life. Racism and discrimination are not new for me, but I must say it still surprises me when I encounter it — especially when it happens in a health-care setting and when health-care professionals are involved.

Many years ago, I went to an Indigenous health conference. There were a number of presentations on various health issues affecting the Indigenous population. One presentation in particular I will never forget; two physicians spoke about HIV in the Indigenous population. During the presentation an Indigenous man who is HIV positive spoke up, and what he said was profound: “I wish I had cancer because then people would love me.” Nine years later, it still brings tears to my eyes.

I have never heard anyone say they wish they had cancer. Both HIV and cancer are potentially treatable and managed, or potentially fatal, yet we treat them so differently. One is a cause for pity and compassion, and the other we treat with rubber gloves and judgment. This man did not get HIV by injecting drugs; it was a heterosexual encounter.

A year or two later I was working in a First Nations community and planned an HIV awareness dinner to educate and reduce stigma. One of the physicians who spoke at the conference came to the dinner to provide education about HIV, and I invited the man with HIV who spoke at the conference to come and tell his story.

An Indigenous man who is HIV positive spoke up, and what he said was profound: “I wish I had cancer because then people would love me.”

“I’m here because I’m sick and I need your help”

As an HIV-positive person, he spoke about the discrimination he experienced from health-care providers and community members. He went to a walk-in clinic one day because he wasn’t feeling well, and he disclosed his HIV status; the physician wrote him a prescription for Tylenol #3s. He told the physician, “That’s not why I’m here; I’m here because I’m sick and I need your help.”

I cried the whole time he talked, and I am certainly not a person that cries easily. It broke my heart to hear about the wide discrimination he experienced and how we have failed to be compassionate to this man who was a victim, just as the person that passed it on to him.

I worked in an ER in a northern community where racism was and still is rampant. I was being oriented by a white nurse, and we had assessed an Indigenous woman. Her obstetrical history was documented as part of her health history and this nurse said to me, “You know, how they always have a lot of kids.” She was a single mother and I was an Indigenous woman with no children. I was speechless.

“Indigenous, educated, and doing well”

Fast-forward five years, and I was working in an ER in a city and was on lunch break with colleagues. Somehow the conversation turned to my being Indigenous. A Black nurse that I enjoyed working with was surprised that I was Indigenous, educated, and doing well. She said, “It’s an honour to meet you and work with you.” I know this came from a good place and she really was honoured; she was that kind of a person. But what does it mean when she, as a Black person, a group that has their own struggles, is amazed that I, as an Indigenous person, am doing so well?

In a previous position for a family health team, I was seeing one of the patients, who is a Filipino woman. She asked me if I was “native,” and I told her I was. She told me stories about how people think her husband is “native” and showed me pictures of him and the rest of her family. She told me a story about one time she was on a streetcar with her daughter and their encounter with a “native” man. He was commenting on her daughter’s long beautiful hair, and then she said to me, “You know, how they’re always drunk.” Again, I was speechless.

They spoke of being “white passing” — “passing” for a “white” person and not being treated with the same racism that other Indigenous people experience.

Recently, I went to an event at the Native Canadian Centre of Toronto that was hosting a a discussion between three Indigenous women on missing and murdered Indigenous women. I have a niece who was murdered, so I attend every vigil, march, and discussion that I can as part of my healing. Unfortunately, one of the three women couldn’t attend due to weather, which changed the topic of discussion.

Jennifer Brant, an Indigenous woman who is an assistant professor at the University of Toronto, interviewed Francine Cunningham, an Indigenous artist, author and educator. Francine recently published a book of poetry called On/Me, which they discussed in addition to their experiences as Indigenous women. They spoke of their experiences when someone has said something racist toward Indigenous people and being speechless and unable to say anything in response. It was nice to know this doesn’t only happen to me, but it makes me sad that others feel speechless and powerless like I do.

They spoke of being “white passing,” which is as it sounds — “passing” for a “white” person and not being treated with the same racism that other Indigenous people experience. I could relate to both. I have always been speechless when I encountered racism, and I also do not encounter the same racism as others do.

Francine read a poem from her book about her mother and her experiences in the health-care system as an Indigenous woman.

On Grief
/Hospital Visits

my mother never had a chance to be white passing
she was always known by the brown in her skin,
the Cree in her features,
what strangers thought she was,
never known for the unseen qualities, the details
her faith, her garden lush in summer, her laughter that burst through spaces
what was seen was beyond her control
people’s perceptions
what they thought they knew

when i was a teenager we moved to a small town in the north
it was during the oka crisis
protests strung along the country
my mom, scared to go outside
these people will think i’m one of them, the bad indians,
the protesting indians
she was afraid, see,
of getting insults hurled at her, beaten up
in a new place with faces that didn’t know her details
that only knew the colour of her skin

when she got sick, really really sick,
she went to the hospital
and they didn’t see the details then either
so used to “fixing up” the problem brown people
they didn’t see the real her
so they sent her away
and so she came back
and again
and again
and they always sent her away
that’s what they called her lung cancer until she couldn’t breathe anymore
until it was stage iv and in her back and brain
because by then they couldn’t deny her anymore
they couldn’t see her as a drunk indian, someone to be forgotten
because they knew then
it was the tumour in her brain, not her skin colour,
that was the problem
but even then, when they knew,
they wouldn’t give her morphine for the pain
still convinced she was her skin colour and their perception
she had to fight for relief
she had to fight for them to see the details
never mind my mom never drank,
didn’t smoke, didn’t do drugs, hardly ever swore, was a Christian
none of those details mattered
and after the first stirrings of pain in her chest twelve months before
she was gone

—Francine Cunningham

I was not meant to hear a talk about missing and murdered Indigenous women that evening. I was meant to hear Francine’s poem and share it and my stories with you. Thank you for reading.


Cunningham, F. (2019). On/Me. Halfmoon Bay, BC: Caitlin Press Inc.

Nicole Johnstone is a registered nurse who has practised in a variety of settings in acute and primary care, public health and community health in Saskatchewan and Ontario. She is from the Mistawasis First Nation in Saskatchewan.