Lionel Desmond was a Black veteran of the war in Afghanistan struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder. In January of last year, after being unable to access the care he desperately needed, he killed his wife, daughter and mother before turning the gun on himself.
We do not know to what extent the added stress of daily and institutional experiences of racism in Canada contributed to Desmond’s PTSD. And we will not, as long as society downplays the many ways in which racism affects both mental and physical health. The reluctance of the Nova Scotia Justice System to open a full inquiry demonstrates how the two-tiered system devalues Black suffering and Black lives. Black Canadians are marginalized through lack of access to health care and the stress experienced from systemic racism which creates long term health issues.
Racism is not just cruel words and ignorance. It is a health crisis.
Indeed, a recent opinion piece by LaRon E. Nelson in the Globe and Mail took this a step further: that racialized and other marginalized groups can have negative experiences within the healthcare system, leading to patients not being able to access the care they need.
The ways in which racism, sexism and other forms of oppression affect health and well-being are vast, dramatically understudied and go well beyond the healthcare system alone.
In Race and Well-Being, a book I co-authored, we examine the different manifestations of racism in Canadian society and survey the impacts these have on personal well-being. Some of the manifestations include discrimination within employment practices, criminal justice, healthcare and education. Considering racism as a social determinant of health is helpful to conceptualize how an individual’s health is impacted by everyday experiences of racism and microaggressions that can be dehumanizing and alienating.
The bigger picture also reveals how structural racism impacts health.
Hopelessness among Black youth is most pronounced in neighbourhoods with high levels of poverty. These social conditions are not the consequence of individual choices, but of a racist, colonial inheritance.
This environment has a damaging effect on the quality of education, the opportunities for advancement, the number and type of interactions had with police, and access to good quality housing. All of these contribute to poor health, of which the most dramatic illustration is premature death due to violence — for instance, almost half of homicide victims in Toronto are Black despite representing less than 10 percent of the population.
Media tend to focus on symptoms, like gun violence, instead of on these deeper root causes. Notions of colour-blindness, equal opportunity and individual responsibility are also to blame. These neutral terms are simply language used to justify exclusion, creating a politically correct society in which racism is invisible but no less real.
This crisis doesn’t end with race either.
Take the case of Lianne Tessier from Halifax: the former firefighter’s mental health was negatively impacted when her complaint of gender discrimination in the workplace was not taken seriously by the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission. Multiple oppressions in North American society overlap and interact with each other — according to Kimberle Crenshaw this is what is called intersectionality. Discrimination due to one’s race, class, ability, age, gender and/or sexuality has the same damaging impact on well-being.
How can this cycle be interrupted?
A three-step plan is needed: awareness, analysis and action.
Without a collective acknowledgement of the impact oppression has on physical and mental health, only so much can be done. Without analyzing what we know about the experience of Black Canadians, we cannot identify specific remedies.
Action comes in many forms. The Black Lives Matter movement is one way. Other social groups have their part to play too, building solidarity across marginalized groups. In April of 2016 there were a series of shootings that shook the Black community in the Halifax region. Members of the community and organizations came together to provide safe spaces to talk about the issues. Some provided counselling and workshops on how to cope with grief in the aftermath of these tragedies. This violence revealed a need for deeper healing in my community. Healing is at the core of moving forward.
If our government, and all Canadians, are serious about tackling racism at home, it is time we start treating this oppression like the health crisis it is.
Wanda Thomas Bernard is a senator representing Nova Scotia (East Preston). She is chair of the Senate Committee on Human Rights, vice-chair of the Canada-Africa Parliamentary Association and a member of the Canadian Caucus of Black Parliamentarians.
This article appeared in the February 5, 2018 edition of The Hill Times.