Doctors from the McGill Faculty of Medicine are fighting to repeal a Quebec policy that prevents parents from accompanying their children during health-related air transport, most recently in a 90-minute testimony on March 21 to the Commission on Relations Between Indigenous Peoples and Certain Public Services in Quebec.
Dr. Samir Shaheen-Hussain, is a pediatric emergency physician and assistant professor in the Faculty of Medicine at McGill University who helped spearhead the initiative. He sees the policy as an example of the mistreatment that Indigenous communities face when dealing with the government. Children in these communities often have to be transported from remote areas by plane and face the greatest linguistic barriers. Further, he claims that neither he nor journalists, lawyers, or the Commission’s legal counsel are able to locate the actual wording of the policy.
“There have been plenty of opportunities for the provincial government to lead the way as an innovator in the field of medical air transport by being responsive to the concerns raised by Indigenous communities,” Shaheen-Hussain wrote in a letter to the Quebec Aeromedical Evacuations (EVAQ). “Instead, it chose to opt for the status quo, which is why Quebec is an aberration across the country by maintaining such an antiquated airlift policy for kids.”
In December 2017, Shaheen-Hussain worked with two colleagues at the Montreal Children’s Hospital to demand reforms from EVAQ. He is disappointed by the government’s reluctance to act, and praises movements like the #aHand2Hold campaign for highlighting the importance of support during medical airlifts.
“The concerns of Indigenous communities and the well-being of their children are not priorities for the provincial government,” Shaheen-Hussain wrote. “Otherwise, the government would have reviewed its egregious pediatric airlift policy long before the public outcry from the last few months forced it to do so.”
Shaheen-Hussain reports that several children are airlifted alone every week. This places the onus of the language barrier on Indigenous children, because the medical teams are often not versed in Indigenous languages. The language barrier can be a major issue, with supporters of reform arguing that communication is key to effective medical assessment.
“[The language barrier] is an obstacle to many because they feel they can’t properly tell the doctor and nurses how they feel, what happened,” Isabelle Picard, a member of the Hurrone-Wendat Nation, said. “When it is kids that fly alone and don’t speak English or French, it is a major obstacle. Plus they [have] never been in a big town with so many non-Indigenous people.”
Cindy Blackstock, executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada, has consulted Indigenous leaders and community members about the trauma of sending sick children alone to a hospital. She adds that it is also a struggle for family members to book a commercial flight to be by their children’s side. Overall, Blackstock finds the solitary airlifts reminiscent of Canada’s colonial past.
“For some parents, the sight of their children leaving alone on a plane also brings back traumatic memories of children being taken by plane to residential schools,” Blackstock said.
Shaheen-Hussain intends to continue pressing the provincial government to address systemic barriers that Indigenous peoples face when receiving health care.
“We emphasize that every single child living in Quebec must be accompanied by a member of their family for aeromedical transport, but this is especially true for Indigenous children due to the innumerable injustices inflicted on their communities,” Shaheen-Hussain wrote. “Assuring that parents can accompany their children would be a step to mark a rupture of yet another practice that separates these children from their parents; a practice that risks perpetuating public distrust in Quebec’s healthcare system.”