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Q&A (part 1): as an Indigenous nurse, have you experienced racism?

Tłı̨chǫ-speaking nurse Lianne Mantla-Look answers our questions

By Lianne Mantla-Look
November 21, 2022
All Canadians have a responsibility to educate themselves about Indigenous Peoples, and all people have a responsibility to treat one another with dignity and respect regardless of their background.
Editor’s note: Lianne Mantla-Look was profiled in Canadian Nurse on November 14. In this four-part series of followup Q&A articles, she provides candid and first-hand insight into her experience as an Indigenous nurse working in the North.

When the topic of racism in health care comes up in conversation with my family and friends, it’s always from the perspective of the patient. When you hear about racism in health care in the news, it’s almost always about the patient’s experience and it always details a bad outcome. In my almost 20 years of nursing, I have never been asked whether I’ve experienced racism as an Indigenous nurse.

Photo by Tessa Macintosh
“I think we can engage in curious questioning about one another’s backgrounds, but it has to be respectful and sensitive,” Tłı̨chǫ-speaking nurse Lianne Mantla-Look says.

Working in the North in a multicultural city, I’ve had many patients ask me where I am from and whether I am of Asian or Inuit descent. It was often assumed that one of my parents was White and I was either half Filipino or Inuit. The patients questioning me about my heritage were usually either Filipino or Inuit themselves. Once, I had an Italian man ask if I was half Italian because my hair was so black and “only Italian people have such black hair”; we had a good laugh about that. I never experienced any malice in these situations, just genuine curiosity.

Assumptions about identity

The only time I ever felt this line of questioning about my heritage was hostile was when a White person asked or made an assumption about my identity. I lived in an eastern Canadian province for a short period of time several years ago. To say that I had no idea of the city’s lack of Indigenous representation would be an understatement.

During my first week of work at the hospital, a co-worker called me an Eskimo. I was shocked and disgusted at the blatant ignorance of the nurse who was supposed to be orientating me. And none of the other nurses in the staff room defended me or attempted to educate this person. I was so upset that I notified human resources. I was treated with kid gloves the following week by some of my co-workers, and the offending co-worker steered clear of me.

In hindsight and after many years of sharing this story, I wish I had spoken up after this incident and asked the offending nurse what they meant by calling me such a horrible thing. I wasn’t offended at being mistaken as Inuit; I was offended at being called such an ignorant word to describe another Indigenous group of people. In hindsight I wish that the nurse had apologized to me or attempted to speak with me to discuss what happened. But after my time in that province, I came to realize that ignorant comments like that were commonplace.

In that same hospital, an older White male patient asked me where I was from. I got the sense that I wasn’t going to get anywhere explaining that I was from the Northwest Territories or that I was from Northern Canada. I simply said that I wasn’t from anywhere in Eastern Canada and had moved from Western Canada. He insisted on asking where “exactly” I was from, and my answer didn’t satisfy him. Finally, he asked, “What’s your country of origin?” and “Are you Oriental?” I replied that I was from Northern Canada, I was Indigenous, and that my people were from Canada. I added that my ancestors were likely here longer than his people were.

Next week — Q&A (part 2): what is the role of a healer in your Indigenous culture and nursing practice?

Missed opportunity

I have never had such a frustrating encounter with anyone. The ignorance and sheer lack of awareness astounded me. In retrospect, I should have used that opportunity to provide education in cultural sensitivity, but I was beginning to realize that I was a tiny minority here in this small eastern Canadian town.

Such experiences didn’t make me hesitate or doubt myself in my role as a care provider: I still gave the best care possible within my scope of practice. Nor did I suffer negative consequences in that these patients didn’t ask for a different nurse upon realizing that I was not like them or not one of them.

But what if they did? What if patients requested a non-Indigenous nurse to be assigned to them for that shift? This was something I did not consider, and I don’t know what my reaction would have been had this occurred. I likely would have been deeply upset, and felt even worse if the staffing shortage did not allow me to change assignments.

Recent media coverage about the poor outcomes that many Indigenous people have suffered when accessing health care made me wonder: what about racism toward the caregiver within the health-care system? Hopefully, my experiences will open the door to discussions about systemic racism.

All Canadians have a responsibility to educate themselves about Indigenous Peoples, and all people have a responsibility to treat one another with dignity and respect regardless of their background. I think we can engage in curious questioning about one another’s backgrounds, but it has to be respectful and sensitive.

Intentions and biases

If you’re wondering about your health-care provider’s background, why? Are you wondering whether you share an ethnic background and have a connection? Are you surprised to see someone with a particular background in a certain profession? Let’s question our own intentions and biases first, before projecting them out into the world.

In addition to patients, health system administrators have a special responsibility to ensure that all staff members feel supported and safe in their workplaces, especially now in this time of health-care personnel shortages. Providing educational opportunities, education on culturally safe engagement among staff and with patients, and facilitating good teamworking practices is a start.

Lianne Mantla-Look is a registered nurse who lives and works in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories. She uses the language she grew up with to bridge gaps in accessing health care for people who speak Tłı̨chǫ (pronounced tli-cho or tlee-cho) and to advocate for Indigenous patients whose first language is not English. Read her profile to learn more.