It was 1978 and I was on a medevac from Frobisher Bay (now Iqaluit) to Montreal with a premature baby in a transport incubator. We were flying on a Nordair scheduled flight as was normal in those days. Sadly, it was also normal for there to be smoking on flights.
The infant required constant oxygen, so there was a ban on smoking for the three-hour flight. During the flight, a man approached me and asked if I would turn the oxygen off for a period of time so he and other passengers could smoke. I was dumbfounded and it took a few seconds to respond to him.
“If this was your child, would you want the nurse to be dumb enough to turn off the oxygen?” I questioned.
His response has stuck with me for 40 years. “I wouldn’t ask if it was my kid cuz my kid would be white.” Needless to say the oxygen remained on during the entire flight. In that instant, I learned to pick my battles.
Fast forward to 1995 when I was a support for men who were abused at Lower Post Residential School. We were having lunch in a restaurant in Terrace, B.C., and the waitress asked me what I wanted. I assumed, because I was the only female at the table, she started with me.
That illusion was shattered when she asked me directly, “And what do they want?” I informed her I was not a mind reader and started to get up to leave.
The men asked me not to “make a scene” as this is what they lived with on a daily basis. I respected their request, although once they left the restaurant, I spoke with the manager and indicated we would never be back because of the racist treatment. He did not seem to care.
During the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Hearings, I had the privilege of being a lead counsellor for the three northern territories. I travelled back to communities I had worked in during the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. I reconnected with the mother of that beautiful premature baby I had escorted in 1978 and had the privilege of meeting that “baby’s” children.
I believe that, in life, things go full circle. I had hoped as Canadians we would be further ahead with regards to race relations. I am saddened that we still have a ways to go. As a nurse, I have a role in challenging systemic and individual racism. I challenge you to do the same. Nurses are about 400,000 strong in Canada, and we can make a difference.
Jackie MacLaren is a registered nurse who has practiced throughout the North.