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What does a language barrier feel like?

Catherine Lafferty, Indigenous columnist for NNSL Media

When  I was 16 years old, I was sent to Hay River to get my four wisdom teeth pulled all at once which required me to be put under for surgery. Unlike most kids that age, travelling alone was not new to me but when I woke from my sedation, I was still heavily groggy and had to take a plane back to Yellowknife that very day. Just hours after my surgery I was expected to check out of my hotel and get myself to the airport.

I don't remember getting to the airport, though somehow I did, but I fell asleep in the seat until someone woke me up and told me it was time to board the plane. In hindsight, I don't understand why I was sent from Yellowknife to Hay River to have major dental surgery, it just seems backwards to me. 

The point is, I wasn't safe. I was a minor, travelling alone without an escort.

This is no different than an Elder travelling alone without a family member to escort them and this is exactly what happened to an Elder this past week. Her family was devastated that they could not go with her to accompany her for surgery and when she arrived in the city, her family hadn't heard from her and feared the worst.

That Elder had limited mobility and limited ability to speak English. Medical travel should have fully considered the fact that having an escort should outweigh Covid-19 restrictions to ensure that she felt safe and cared for and was accompanied by someone that she could understand without difficulty.

It is frightening for patients and loved ones to have to go to a place where they don't know anyone or how to get around. When they have to rely on written instructions on where and when they have to be somewhere for an appointment.

Family members should be able to accompany minors and Elders but with Covid-19 it is difficult to have family members be escorts unless it is deemed absolutely necessary. Many patients from smaller communities are experiencing troubles navigating the bureaucratic health care system alone and they shouldn't have to, public service workers should be helpful but people in communities are sharing their terrifying experiences when it comes to medical travel and something needs to be done.

With all of the talk right now about racism in the healthcare industry, health care providers should be doing all they can to ensure the best care for patients, in particular applying cultural sensitivity practices for Indigenous patients who often get stereotyped and accused for being drunk when they actually have severe medical conditions that need urgent care.

There were times when I would be waiting in the emergency room and could hear the staff unprofessionally sitting around laughing and joking about patients in the common area where everyone could hear.

Language shouldn't be a barrier to care when it comes to public service, especially when Indigenous languages are the most spoken languages in the NWT, all nine considered official. I remember reading in the news that Barthy Kotchile, a fluent speaker of Slavey, called 911 when he witnessed the murder of Charlotte Lafferty in 2014 outside his home in Fort Good Hope. Had the dispatch known what he was trying to say and was able to immediately direct his call to a translator, Lafferty might not have died that day.

Instead, the dispatcher wasted time asking too many questions that were difficult for Kotchile to answer, in what seemed to be a condescending manner when reading the transcripts. Has anything changed since then? My guess is no, other than the fact that the NWT finally caught up with the rest of the country and got a 911 number.

Human dignity should be at the forefront of public service. My son recently returned to the North and is in quarantine, for us it was difficult trying to speak to the appropriate personal on the phone with protect NWT because there are so many different moving parts to the system, one number for questions, another number for accommodations, another number for vaccines and the list goes on.

It all gets to be too much and people get frustrated and confused. When my son arrived at the airport, he wasn't sure where to go or who to speak to until he was told to look for the white van outside the airport that would shuttle him to where he needed to go. This was not well thought through.

If Protect NWT knew the fear that is felt by parents in communities when we hear the words "white van" then they would label it the Covid-19 shuttle for peace of mind. It's these types of extra measures that should be taken to ensure patients have the comfort and care they deserve when having to travel for medical, and also for anyone having to engage with front line workers in the public service sector. 

With or without Covid being a factor there are ways to do things safely and respectfully and this should be paramount in the eyes of those working in the public service sector who are tasked with administering the needs of Northern residents.