A class-action lawsuit against those involved in administering medical services to Hazelton-area aboriginal people is now going ahead after a human rights complaint was allowed to be heard before a future tribunal.
The date and location of the trial have yet to be set, but the lawyer for the complainants, Lindsay Waddell, is quick to point out what the case is about.
“This case is not about the performance of individual doctors, nurses and other staff at Wrinch [Memorial Hospital] who do the best they can on a daily basis with the limited resources available to them,” Waddell said. “This case is about whether Northern Health, the [B.C.] Ministry of Health and the United Church Health Services Society are discriminating – perhaps unintentionally – against First Nations people in the Hazelton area by failing to adequately fund and deliver medical services.”
The three respondents listed above attempted to have the suit dismissed due to lack of evidence and reasonable chance of success for the complainants’ case, but the sitting tribunal adjudicator, Catherine McCreary, did not side with that viewpoint.
“It is apparent from the [MOH’s] own submissions in the present case, as well as those of the [NHA] and the [UCHSS], that the ministry plays a role in several areas engaged by the complaint such as, for example, funding decisions, setting goals and standards for the delivery of health care services, among other things,” McCreary wrote in her reasons for judgement Jan. 23. “Indeed, it is difficult to comprehend how an entity providing “leadership” in relation to the delivery of health care services in B.C. could not have the ability to influence the delivery of services on a systemic level.”
Nearly 3,500 aboriginal people are registered as living on the seven reserves in the area, according to Gitksan Government Commission records, which don’t factor how many Gitxsan or Wet’suwet’en live outside the reserve lands in the area.
Pauline Cole, lead complainant, the other being Vernon Joseph, submitted testimony in the pre-trial hearing.
“All the staff seem overworked and too busy,” Cole said. “They say it is hard to work there because of all the cuts. Everybody is worried because it seems like they are closing the hospital one step at a time. When we go to other hospitals like in Smithers or Kitimat where there are less first peoples it is really different.
“At WMH all the equipment is outdated ... The X-ray machine is the old fashioned film-type, but Smithers and Kitimat have more modern digital equipment.”
Smithers has around 6,000 people and Kitimat sits at roughly 11,000, while Hazelton has more than 7,000 residents, according to the NHA website.
Now that the matter is set to be heard, all First Nations people in the Hazelton area need to be notified, which is set out in McCreary’s reasons for judgement.
“A pre-hearing conference will be convened to consider and possibly make orders concerning the notification of the members of the class, concerning the progress of the complaint and any issues regarding opting out,” McCreary wrote.
The complainants’ claim that word of mouth was sufficient to notify all First Nations’ people in the area was questioned by the respondents and supported by the judge.
“It is unlikely that ‘word of mouth’ will be sufficient to keep the members of the class notified of the progress of the complaint, particularly in a timely fashion,” McCreary wrote. “The complainants have also not indicated that they have notified the class members of a right to opt out of the complaint, nor have they proposed a method for doing so.”
It could take more than a year for this matter to be heard.
Ed David, WMH administrator, declined to comment as the matter has yet to be heard in court.