On June 18th, a video[1] of an Ontario woman refusing to have her son treated by a person of color became viral on social media. This scene reminded us that racism still exists by unveiling the particular form it takes in the health system when patients refuse contact with racialized caregivers. This video showcased the particular role that caring and bodily intimacy can play in the expression of racist representations of individuals and of the racist imaginary specific to contemporary Canadian society.

This vulnerability of sick bodies and the intimacy of the act of care have been, throughout the different periods of Quebec and Canadian history, a space for the expression of racist imaginaries at work in society. In this text, we will cover three moments of expression of racism in Montreal hospitals to reflect on the contemporary implications of the fear of “Others” on structural racism in the Quebec health system. We will focus more specifically on the case of medical students who, because of their origin, real or not, were excluded from their internships, thus blocking their access to the medical profession.

The Irish “Other” (1852)

Between 1816 and 1860, Canada experienced an important wave of migrant Irish fleeing misery and famine, resulting in interethnic tensions that were reflected in the health system. In 1852, an anecdotal event seems to us to be emblematic of the racism present in Canadian society with regard to the Irish community and its specific repercussion in clinics and hospitals. The Irish student Mckeon sent a complaint to the Bishop of Montreal, Mgr. Ignace Bourget. Mckeon, who was then doing an internship at the Saint-Joseph hospital, complained that, because of his Irish origins, he was prohibited from treating French-Canadian women[2]. This individual complaint was not representative of the whole system, but nevertheless reflects the negative representation of the Irish in Quebec society and the implication of these representations on the exclusion of the Irish from practicing medicine.

Racial segregation at Montreal Maternity Hospital (1917)

It is not only Irish students who will experience some form of discrimination in the health system, but also “students of color” who have been denied the right to do their internships in some institutions. An article published in 1917 in the Montreal Herald is, in this respect, indicative of the discrimination present in the health system. The article tells us that the Montreal Maternity Hospital would close its doors to all students of color. The doctor W. Chipman, in charge of internships at the Montreal Maternity Hospital, told the newspaper that:

“We are not barring colored students from any assistance that we can give them, but the number of colored patients is very small, and of course white patients object to receiving treatment from them.“

The frankness with which Chipman claims that white patients “of course” refuse to be treated by people of color, highlights the racist bias of early twentieth-century Canadian society. Students who had been refused at the Maternity Hospital were therefore forced to complete their maternity internship in New York, where hospitals, unlike Montreal institutions, accepted students of color. Segregationist logic, where white people look after whites and people of color look after people of color, explains the transfer of these students to a hospital in New York, where the Afro-descendant population is much larger than in Montreal.

Internships strike and anti-Semitism at Notre-Dame Hospital (1934)

During the 1930s, a virulent wave of anti-Semitism afflicted, in many ways, Quebec and Canadian societies. One of the most emblematic cases of this climate took place in 1934 when an internship strike was called at Notre-Dame Hospital. This medical interns’ strike, the first in Canada in the medical sector, demanded that the recently-nominated senior intern of Jewish origin, Sam Rabinovitch, be removed from his post and replaced by a French Canadian. The backbone of the strikers’ speech was that a Jew could not work in a Catholic hospital. The Notre-Dame Hospital interns strike extended to four other Montreal hospitals, while nurses from these hospitals also threatened to join the movement. After four days of strikes, Rabinovich resigned because of anti-Semitic pressure.

At the intersection between university institutions and hospitals, this interns strike helped to formalize systemic racism towards Jews in these institutions during the 1930s and 1940s. Indeed, as a result of the strike, Notre-Dame hospital had decided to no longer hire Jews. Both the University of Montreal and McGill University introduced selection measures during the same period, restricting Jewish access to the university institution. The case of entrance quotas at McGill University is indicative of the systemic racism at work in the university institution. In fact, the average required for a Jew to be accepted to the Faculty of Arts was 75%, while it was 60% for the others, in addition to a maximum quota of 10% of Jewish students applied in the faculties of law and medicine.

And it goes on…

These three cases, which one might believe are now part of the Quebec’s past, are rather part of a continued story of racism that persists to this day. Racism against health care workers, whether student or not, is still extremely common in the health system[3]. Whether it is a matter of state policy, such as the Parti Québécois’ defunct Charter of Quebec Values, or the result of the racist bias of patients or employees, this racism contributes to the exclusion of racialized people from québécois society, in a broader sense. In recent months, discussions about systemic racism have all too often focused on the issue of recognition of diplomas obtained abroad. The stories we have exposed and the experience of many racialized workers and interns remind us, however, that the racist bias within one’s training contributes to the difficulties of obtaining a diploma for these persons and their generalized participation in society. The interns’ fight cannot be limited to claiming a salary: it is inseparable from a general struggle against racism, which contributes to devaluing the work of immigrants and racialized people and justifying free work in the health network as in all direct services to the population.

Jaouad Laaroussi and Claudia Thibault
Translation by Ronny Nou-Khlot

This article was published in the Winter 2018 issue of the english edition of CUTE Magazine.
To learn more about the struggle for the full recognition of student work, to discuss or contribute to it, we can contact us via the CUTE Campagne sur le travail étudiant page or the SWUC – Student Work Unitary Committee page.

  1. https://youtu.be/Zl5JKDIlsbU ↩︎

  2. Mc Mckeon; Montréal, Plainte d’un étudiant contre les Srs pour racisme, Dossier des Hospitalières de Saint-Joseph, Archives de la Chancellerie, No. 525.102, 852-39, 1852-10-13. ↩︎

  3. Ousman Thiam, ‘You don’t want to be in a french hospital’, Condition critique : http://www.comitestat.org/2014/09/you-dont-want-to-be-in-a-french-hospital/ ; Nancy Beaulieu, Du racisme dans les CHSLD, TVA Nouvelles : http://www.tvanouvelles.ca/2013/10/03/du-racisme-dans-les-chsld ; Félix Dumas-Lavoie et Youri Jones Vilmay, Exploitation des femmes et racisme dans la santé: une pilule difficile à avaler pour les stagiaires, CUTE magazine no. 1: https://dissident.es/exploitation-des-femmes-et-racisme-dans-la-sante-une-pilule-difficile-a-avaler-pour-les-stagiaires/ ↩︎