Doctors say concerns over racist emails and request for papal visit rejected by Alberta Health Services

Two Indigenous doctors say Alberta Health Services has dismissed their concerns about a manager who sent racist and inappropriate emails to doctors, including about Pope Francis’ upcoming visit to Alberta.

Emails obtained by CBC News show that in March, a locum doctor applied to the health authority’s Indigenous wellness program to replace Dr. James Makokis at a clinic in the Cree Nation of Kehewin, 240 kilometers north -east of Edmonton.

Dr. Ellen Toth, the AHS administrator responsible for ensuring that Indigenous communities have medical coverage, shared the application form with her colleagues with this comment:

“Pretty impressive resume. Graduated from college…prolly brown…”

Toth added of the doctor, who is male, “I’ll talk to her, basically to find out if there’s a bad accent (I doubt if she’s been through the U of A)…”

Makokis, who is the only family doctor in the Cree Nation of Kehewin, said Toth’s words were included in a response to the requesting doctor.

Makokis said he was “shocked, embarrassed and angry” when he saw the email. He apologized to the locum doctor and replied to Toth and the other recipients that the message was racist.

In response, Toth wrote to a group of people who had received the email: “I take full responsibility for my innate racism…which should come as no surprise given my blue eyes and my origins…”

She also said that she considers a doctor to be “brown” as a positive attribute and that any heavy accent can cause problems for patients.

Over the next two months, Makokis attempted to raise his concerns with senior AHS leaders. He said it eroded his confidence in the organization’s ability to respond appropriately to racist incidents when Toth remained in a leadership role for a program that provides health care to Indigenous people.

In a June 24 email to Makokis and several others, AHS Vice President Dr. Mark Joffe called Toth’s message “highly inappropriate and racist” but said “measures appropriate have been taken”.

On Friday, AHS spokesperson Kerry Williamson told CBC News the organization had conducted an internal investigation and told Toth his message was unacceptable. He did not say if Toth faced any discipline, saying it was a private HR matter.

Toth did not respond to requests for comment.

CBC showed the emails to psychologist Helen Ofosu, president of I/O Advisory Services, an Ottawa-based company that specializes in helping organizations improve equity, diversity and inclusion.

Psychologist Helen Ofosu is president of I/O Advisory Services. The Ottawa-based expert works with organizations to address racism and improve their equity, diversity and inclusion. (Submitted by Helen Ofosu)

Ofosu said such intolerant posts not only hurt the subject of the racist comments, but also all colleagues who also fear being discriminated against.

That’s a problem, because workers who are anxious and preoccupied with feeling they need to protect themselves at work will have a harder time with productivity and meeting goals, she said.

Request for ‘triggering’ volunteers

Makokis said his concerns persisted when Toth sent another email on June 24 – an “urgent” request for doctors to volunteer during Pope Francis’ visit to Alberta July 24-27.

The email was sent to approximately 60 doctors who work in Indigenous health services in the province.

Tens of thousands of people are expected to flock to a mass at Commonwealth Stadium, a pilgrimage to Lac Ste. Anne, and a rally at the site of a former residential school in Maskwacis, 100 km south of Edmonton.

The Pope’s visit was prompted by public pressure on the Catholic Church to redress its role in the legacy of residential schools across Canada.

AHS wants to be prepared for attendees who are overwhelmed by crowds, heat, potentially with COVID-19, medical emergencies, and whose trauma is exacerbated by the events.

“So today’s request,” Toth wrote to the doctors. “If you’re not already engaged, what can you commit (sic)?”

Makokis said it was a disturbing and inappropriate request to send to this group of doctors, some of whom are indigenous, when the church has a violent history against them.

“It’s very motivating that you’re asking indigenous doctors – and I’ll speak for myself (maybe others find this problematic) to come and ‘volunteer’ for the Pope’s visit,” Makokis replied. at Toth.

Family physician Dr. Lana Potts, who works at the Siksika Health Center on the Siksika Nation reserve, 95 km east of Calgary, said she was appalled and shaken by the demand.

Potts attended residential school in Saskatchewan and his family members are also survivors.

“I’m still hurt by those policies to this day,” Potts said. “I don’t come home at night and forget about it. I live it.”

Worse still, Potts said, was Joffe’s reaction after several doctors said the request was inappropriate.

A woman wearing a wide-brimmed yellow hat.
Dr. Lana Potts, who works at the Siksika Health Center in southern Alberta, said she was appalled and shaken by the request for volunteers. (Submitted by Dr. Lana Potts)

In a June 25 email, Joffe said AHS needs to prepare for all major gatherings — including Garth Brooks concerts and the Calgary Stampede. He said doctors can choose whether or not to participate.

“But it’s ultimately about being prepared and supporting the attendees, not your personal take on any of this,” Joffe wrote.

Potts and Makokis said they believe executives don’t know why the request is harmful.

Joffe did not respond to an email interview request. Williamson’s statement from AHS said the organization apologizes to the doctors who found the request triggering.

So far, six doctors have volunteered to attend the events and will be paid for their work, Williamson said.

“We are very aware of the trauma this emotional event can cause, and we believe that having Indigenous health professionals providing help and support to Indigenous people at what could be a difficult time can help. “, reads the press release.

Ofosu said AHS’s “insensitive” response to doctors’ concerns shows they don’t sufficiently understand the history and traumatic effects of residential schools.

“If management doesn’t believe in fairness, doesn’t believe in [being] trauma informed, don’t believe in being trauma sensitive, maybe they’re not the right people to run this organization,” she said.

Zakeana Reid, chief operating officer of Calgary-based CCDI Consulting, said such missteps are common.

Reid said it’s important for leaders to own up to their mistakes and give employees as much information as possible about what happened and how the organization is taking steps to prevent it from happening. reproduce.

“Any time an organization pushes something under the rug, there’s a chance you’ll have an impact on the trust your staff have in you,” said Reid, who also saw the emails.

An encouraging sign is that some doctors felt safe enough to bring concerns to the attention of managers, she said.

The two consultants said AHS leaders should have asked Indigenous people how to seek help from doctors for such a sensitive event.

AHS takes anti-racism stance after other incidents

In 2020, CBC News revealed that a surgeon in Grande Prairie in 2016 taped a noose to the door of an operating room that he said was intended to send a message to a black surgical assistant.

Last year, an Indigenous nurse, who was racially abused by colleagues at the Edmonton Remand Center, was granted a hearing in a human rights tribunal after AHS l assigned to a different job instead of dealing with the problem.

In 2017, AHS fired two employees after a worker sent a text message calling an Indigenous school principal a racial slur.

Last summer AHS, the province’s largest employer, released a stand against racism. It recognizes that racism and discrimination exist within the healthcare system and commits the organization to combat them.

An anti-racism advisory board has also given AHS a list of 36 recommendations to improve equity and inclusion, from changing hiring practices to training leaders to making complaints safer.

AHS has accepted all of the recommendations but does not have a timeline to implement them all.

Employees can also report racist incidents or behavior through an online portal or a “secure disclosure hotline,” Williamson said.