Ten foreign-trained internal medicine specialists in Regina are claiming they were targets of “racist, and discriminatory leadership” while working at the Regina General Hospital, and have filed a complaint with the Saskatchewan Human Rights Commission.
The complaint, filed Oct. 5, alleges that the 10 physicians in the internal medicine unit, all of whom trained in Africa or East Asia, had no complaints about their work environment until earlier this year when Dr. Bonnie Richardson became lead of the hospital’s department of medicine.
The complaint alleges that Dr. Richardson and her colleague Dr. Linas Kumeliauskas, who became lead of their division of internal medicine, fired the person who made the physician schedule for hospital-based shifts and began scheduling shifts themselves.
The 10 doctors allege the shifts were no longer fairly divided among the 17 members of the department. Instead, the doctors say the most sought-after shifts, including teaching shifts where doctors train medical postgraduates on the job and shifts that offered a premium for additional work, went almost entirely to white physicians. The allegations have not been proven in court.
“It was quite brazen,” Dr. Olu Ogundare, a physician from Nigeria who moved to Regina in 2020, told CTV National News. “We … people of colour and the people that are not in the favoured group, got zero.”
“We feel we are racially discriminated against,” Dr. Babatunde Adewunmi, a physician from Nigeria, who practiced in the U.K. before moving his family to Regina, told CTV National News.
“It was a wonderful place to settle in—inclusive—and that has been my experience 100 per cent up until (recently),” Dr. Adewunmi said. “It’s literally (become) the most toxic place, any one of us has ever walked in.”
“I love my work,” Dr. Rosemary Serwadda, a physician from South Africa, told CTV National News. “My patients are amazing, my colleagues are amazing—until about six months ago, (and) it changed so fast.”
The complaint alleges that only one Black physician was given a preferred shift because her contract required the hospital to assign the doctor teaching shifts. That doctor has since left the hospital.
“We felt like there was a gross abuse of power, essentially telling us we’re not as good as the others and we don’t deserve to be equal,” Dr. Abiodun Abdulazzez Olajide, originally from Nigeria and who worked in the U.K. before moving to Regina in 2022, told CTV National News.
Dr. Tom Perron, a white physician in the Department of Internal Medicine at Regina General Hospital, told CTV National News following the scheduling changes he was assigned more shifts than he requested, and with 10 doctors left off certain shift rotations, it meant there were sometimes fewer doctors on-call for service.
“There were times where one person was covering two (areas ) which definitely impacts patient care in a negative way, ” Perron said.
Perron also said he felt his BIPOC colleagues were being unfairly financially penalized. While all the doctors who filed the complaint have work outside the hospital in clinics, internal medicine specialists derive most of their income from hospital work.
“A number of people(‘s shifts) … were cut down significantly in an effort to get them to leave,” he suggested. He adds he co-signed the human rights complaint in support of his colleagues. “I feel like it’s the right thing to do in this situation,” Perron said.
When they raised their concerns about their treatment with hospital administrators, the BIPOC doctors said their requests for fair treatment were dismissed. Some allege they then faced increased harassment and bullying, including frivolous complaints about their work to the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Saskatchewan.
“This is a really exceptional case, ” Brooke Shekter, a health law specialist in Oakville who is representing the group of physicians, told CTV National News. “You have the majority of the division of internal medicine and the majority of those physicians are people of colour. And they are coming forward to their hospital leadership saying we are being discriminated against on the basis of our race, and they are ignored.”
The complaint says that when the doctors contacted the province’s Ministry of Health they received no direct response.
According to the complaint, the Saskatchewan Health Authority (SHA), which runs Regina General Hospital, said an investigation was launched but it was left to hospital staff to assess if Dr. Richardson had followed hospital policy.
“We felt it was going to be a sham,” Dr. Adewunmi said, adding the group prefers an independent and impartial third party external investigator.
An SHA spokesperson responded to the allegations in a statement to CTV National News: “The SHA is committed to having a workforce that is representative of all demographics and can support Saskatchewan’s diverse population. The SHA will not provide any comment on legal matters taking into account the interests of all those involved.”
Saskatchewan’s Ministry of Health also responded in a statement to CTV News. Officials with the ministry wrote that they “cannot comment on active legal matters,” adding “… there is no place for racism in our province and that we must work together to promote inclusion and acceptance. The Ministry of Health takes any concerns related to quality of care very seriously and remains committed to improving cultural responsiveness of the services and programs provided in the health care system.”
The office of Dr. Richardson told CTV National News the SHA was responding on her behalf. CTV National News has also reached out to Dr. Kumeliauskas for comment and has not heard back.
FAST-TRACKING FOREIGN HEALTH WORKERS
Canada is aggressively recruiting foreign health workers to fill thousands of empty jobs in hospitals and clinics in the country. If they hear discrimination is an issue, experts worry, it might become a stain on the country’s reputation.
“If the Canadian healthcare system wants to recruit and retain Black physicians … racism at every level is going to have to be addressed, starting from the patients all the way up to leadership in the health-care system,” Dr. Hadal El-Hadi, co-founder of the Black Physicians of Canada and a resident in the UBC Public Health and Preventative Medicine program in Vancouver, told CTV National News.
While Dr. El-Hadi says she can’t comment directly on the human rights complaint, she confirms her group routinely hears of stories of discrimination from physicians of colour across the country, and adds she has faced it as well.
“It’s very scary how the experience can exist at any corner in Canada, regardless of which province,” Dr. El-Hadi said.
A recent study in Ontario found that 70 per cent of Black physicians reported they experienced racism in the workplace.
“We found that people were silent about it, either because they felt like they couldn’t report it. Because there they thought that there would be consequences to their career,” Dr. Onyenyechukwu Nnorom, an assistant professor at the University of Toronto who studies racism in health-care, told CTV National News.
Nnorom said while many hospitals in Canada are actively working on eliminating racial bias, it’s continued existence is demoralizing for doctors and nurses, and endangers patient care.
“If we can’t respect each other as health-care providers, it becomes less likely that we’re going to have respect for that patient,” she said.
Meanwhile, the 10 doctors who filed the human rights complaint say they are puzzled by their treatment by hospital leadership.
“The people of Saskatchewan have been very appreciative of the work that we do. And we are not getting racial discrimination from the patient population,” Dr. Ogundare said.
Some have contemplated leaving the province altogether, with their skills in demand world wide, but they say they have chosen to challenge hospital leadership to ensure future physicians of colour don’t encounter the same roadblocks.
“If we leave,” Dr. Ogundare said, “the people that will suffer are our patients.”