Challenging racism in health care should be part of Desmond inquiry’s legacy: witnesses

The province must invest in culturally specific health-care services for Black communities to eradicate the barriers of systemic racism, stigma and intergenerational trauma to African Nova Scotians seeking mental health and domestic violence support, the Lionel Desmond inquiry heard Monday.

The inquiry’s mandate has focused on the intersection of mental health, domestic violence and firearms.

But a panel of four experts with connections to the Health Association of African Canadians told the Port Hawkesbury, N.S., courtroom about the need to address the role that race and systemic racism played in deaths on Jan. 3, 2017.

That day, Lionel Desmond, an Afghanistan war veteran with complex post-traumatic stress disorder, fatally shot his wife, Shanna; his 10-year-old daughter, Aaliyah; his mother, Brenda; and himself inside his in-laws’ home in Upper Big Tracadie, N.S.

The four family members were Black.  

Detrimental effects of racism

In its quest to prevent future deaths, the inquiry has heard from more than a dozen mental health clinicians and experts, some of whom were involved in Desmond’s treatment.

That none of those witnesses spoke of the detrimental effect of societal and systemic racism on Black mental health highlights the challenges facing patients like Desmond, social worker and sociologist Robert Wright testified Monday.  

“That’s not to suggest that the clinicians that you have spoken to are themselves racist, but that the systems in which they have worked, the schools in which they have studied, even the professional development that they have been exposed to … has left them devoid of the kinds of things that we’re sharing with you today — and that is fundamentally what I think must be changed.”

Shanna Desmond and her daughter were among four of the people killed in an apparent murder-suicide at a home in Upper Big Tracadie, N.S. (Facebook)

The inquiry will make recommendations for the province to consider, in particular around access to mental health and domestic violence services. 

Those recommendations must include better integration of Black health professionals to support African Nova Scotian patients, particularly in rural communities where there are even fewer Black doctors, nurses and social workers, testified Sharon Davis-Murdoch, co-president of the Health Association of African Canadians. 

She estimated about 80 per cent of the province’s Black health-care providers work in the Halifax Regional Municipality.

Recommendations for change

The panel has recommended the province contract the Association of Black Social Workers and the Peoples Counselling Clinic to offer virtual mental health care in rural communities, noting that it must also invest in high-quality internet for those areas.  

Its other recommendations include: 

Wright said that he hopes the inquiry’s legacy will be that of challenging systemic racism in Nova Scotia health care.

Judge Warren Zimmer is expected to hear submissions shortly from the lawyers involved in the inquiry to help him in creating his report of recommendations for the province.

The inquiry’s final witness, Wayn Hamilton, the executive director of African Nova Scotia Affairs, is expected to testify Tuesday.

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