Montreal emergency pediatrician Samir Shaheen-Hussain speaks in March 2018 at Quebec’s Viens Commission, where he criticized government policy that kept parents off the province’s air ambulance that brings sick and injured children south to Montreal for medical care. (File photo)

Montreal doctor’s new book confronts anti-Indigenous racism in health care

“Inflicting emotional and psychological trauma on children should never be normal”

By Sarah Rogers

Dr. Samir Shaheen-Hussain often tells the story of the young Inuk boy who arrived in the emergency room of the Montreal Children’s Hospital in 2017.

The boy had fallen off an ATV in his Nunavik community, sustaining injuries to his head and abdomen, and was flown south via Quebec’s air ambulance — alone.

Shaheen-Hussain treated the boy, who he said cried inconsolably. And there was little he or his colleagues could do; the boy only spoke Inuktitut.

Little did he know at the time that the little boy would be a catalyst for change to Quebec’s policy of flying children — many of them from Nunavik and neighbouring Eeyou Istchee — aboard its ambulance service without the company or support of a parent or caregiver.

“For the first time, it forced me to question the normalization of the practice: inflicting emotional and psychological trauma on children should never be normal,” writes Shaheen-Hussain in his new book, Fighting For a Hand to Hold: Confronting Medical Colonialism against Indigenous Children in Canada.

The book looks at his and other advocates’ efforts to change that practice, first through a letter Shaheen-Hussain and his colleagues penned to the province’s air ambulance agency, Évacuations aéromédicales du Québec, in late 2017 and the subsequent campaign that emerged in 2018, #AHandToHold.

The policy was finally changed in 2018, allowing caregivers to accompany their children.

But Shaheen-Hussain writes about his “cautious optimism” in a system that has long mistreated and displaced Indigenous peoples, drawing on his experience as both a doctor and social justice advocate to confront the systemic anti-Indigenous racism he says is pervasive throughout the country.

“The extensive history of genocidal violence inflicted on children through medical col

onialism as detailed in this book is ultimately the responsibility of public health care institutions and various levels of government,” writes the pediatric physician, who is also assistant professor at McGill University’s Faculty of Medicine.

A friend suggested Shaheen-Hussain’s book to Alisha Tukkiapik, a Montreal-based social worker and student who grew up in Kuujjuaq and Kuujjuaraapik.

Tukkiapik herself was just 12 years old when her appendix ruptured, and she was forced to fly alone by air ambulance to a Montreal hospital.

“It was very scary — not knowing when my step-mom could

be there,” she said. “In a moment like that, you just want to be with your parents. It’s a traumatic experience, but it’s the reality of what we live.”

Tukkiapik followed the media coverage in 2017 and 2018, when Quebec finally began to allow caregivers to fly on the air ambulance, and she credits Shaheen-Hussain’s efforts for bringing that story to a wider audience.

“When I read the book, I was in awe to know there’s someone out there who understands this experience,” she said. “It’s a heavy read, but it’s important.”

Fighting for a Hand to Hold: Confronting Medical Colonialism against Indigenous Children in Canada was published in September 2020 by McGill-Queen’s University Press.

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(6) Comments:

  1. Posted by ILM on

    Thank you so much to those who raise their voices and take a stand against human injustices. We need more people like Dr. Samir Shaheen-Hussain.
    God bless him and his family.
    And all those who suffer from racist actions, be proud of who you are.
    May we all continue to fight for equality.

  2. Posted by Inutuinnaq on

    Dr. Samir Shaheen-Hussain. Is a true champion a hamashiak or qaumatsiaq thank you for showing a much needed attention

    • Posted by Amanda francis on

      Try it when the hospital sends u home repeatedly til there dead. This is canada for u..

  3. Posted by Not sure on

    Caution here folks. I’m taking caution myself as I read this, and not sure if I’ll read the book. If I did read the book, would it surprise me? no is the answers to what I would read, it’s been a rough ride for Inuit since the beginning, and as good as it is for someone to document the ride, the motivation to do so needs scrutiny, and I’m not going to just accept that this doctor is in anyway a saviour to this crisis. In the day of uncertainty, it’s caution with people’s own little agendas. To write a book about it all , has its own power, at the mercy of the reader, but I’m not too impressed, even if many are. The saving of life on the medical evacuations are costly and strictly in the best interest of the patient’s outcome. I’m for one that would advocate for love ones to be in the presence of the patient, but I’m also for the best outcome of the patient to be recovered.

    • Posted by Ihumaliuriiqhimaplutit? on

      No one will make you or I accept anything we don’t want to. Love books, articles for good info to base my decision/opinion on. Thanks to the brave souls who take on difficult issues to make things a little better.

      • Posted by Is that right? on

        Don’t be too quick. You and I have been accepting the government’s decisions forever, and will still do so, with or without a book. If only someone could write more about and document the deplorable situation at uvilik, now that would be worthwhile.

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