The family of Brent Sky is demanding answers after the 32-year-old from Shoal Lake 40 First Nation was discharged from a hospital in northwestern Ontario with headache pills and died the next day from a brain bleed.
Sky’s body was found on the floor of his house in the Ojibway community on Oct. 27. According to his family, 24 hours earlier, he had been discharged from the Lake of the Woods District Hospital in Kenora with ibuprofen pills, an anti-inflammatory medication that can be purchased over the counter.
“That’s what I lost, and I don’t wish for anybody to ever go through what we’re going through” Jonathan Bruyère told CBC News about his son.
Bruyère said Sky was always an active, healthy young man.
“The pain is indescribable.”
Sky wasn’t accompanied by anyone when he was taken by ambulance to the hospital. Details about how he was treated during his roughly six hours at Lake of the Woods — including who assessed the First Nations man, how long he spent there, if he was admitted to the emergency department and what treatment he received — are still unknown.
Sky’s family can’t give specific examples about how hospital staff may have treated him, but they worry that systemic racism may have played a role in his death. They fear the health-care staff may not have taken their son’s symptoms seriously and discharged him without adequate care.
Hospital officials in Kenora as well as Ontario’s chief coroner are still investigating, so there’s been no final determination of what Sky experienced while there or what led to his death.
A senior Lake of the Woods official told CBC he could not comment on Sky’s case at this time but indicated the hospital is aware that cases of racism have occurred at Lake of the Woods. The official said the hospital is working to improve care for Indigenous patients.
Bruyère is encouraging others to tell their stories in hopes it will lead to improved care for Indigenous people.
“I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t feel the need,” he said.
Dad lost his ‘best friend’ in his son
Sitting at a table in Shoal Lake 40, where about 300 people live on reserve 90 kilometres southwest of Kenora, Sky’s dad and mom, Tania, sifted through a stack of photos that tell story after story about him.
Most of the photos include fishing, hockey and powwows. One with a large frame shows Sky’s eight-year-old daughter, Tyla, in full hockey gear.
WATCH | Jonathan Bruyère talks about his son:
The family cherishes those photos and the stories they represent. They’re all they have left of him.
“I keep waiting for my son to walk in the door and say, ‘Hey dad, where’s mom?” Bruyère said. “But it’s just my mind remembering how it was.”
The first sign something was wrong with Sky was on a Sunday night in late October, Bruyère said. His son complained of a headache so bad that it was affecting his sight, and it worsened the next day.
Late on the night of Monday, Oct. 25, Sky called for an ambulance and asked his dad to come help.
Bruyère drove his son to Freedom Road, the only road connecting the First Nation to the provincial highway network, where they met paramedics.
I felt good about him being in their care.– Jonathan Bruyère, father of Brent Sky
The dad said he pointed to his son and told the paramedic Sky “was hurting. He’s got a headache. His eyes are hurting. He can’t really see.” The paramedic then helped Sky into the ambulance and started the 100-kilometre drive to the hospital in Kenora.
“I felt good about him being in their care,” Bruyère said.
By 6 a.m. ET Tuesday, Sky said in a text to his dad that he was still hurting and couldn’t see but had been released.
“I don’t really know what they did for him, because he said they didn’t do anything for him,” said Bruyère. His wife later told him Sky was sent home with some ibuprofen, he said.
Messages to family stopped
After Shoal Lake 40’s medical transport dropped Sky off at his house Tuesday afternoon, both parents stopped by to check in on him.
By 7 p.m. that day, Sky had stopped responding to any messages.
The next morning, Oct. 27, Bruyère went to his son’s house and found him lying on the floor, motionless.
“I started yelling, ‘No, no, no, no don’t take my son,” he said. “But as I got to him, I knew it.
“I was still hoping there was something I could possibly do. If there was a sign or something, I’d do my best to help him out. But there was nothing there.”
Family members say they’re still waiting for more information and can’t say much more because they are looking at legal options.
Lake of the Woods president Ray Racette said the hospital is committed to sharing the results of the internal investigation into Sky’s death with his family.
The Ontario chief coroner’s office said it is examining Sky’s death as it was “sudden and unexpected,” in line with its mandate on when it conducts investigations.
While Sky’s family is waiting for the results of the investigation, more than a dozen Indigenous people in northwestern Ontario have since told CBC News or posted to social media about their own experiences at the Kenora hospital.
CBC News has not independently verified the stories, but people have mentioned feeling like they weren’t treated respectfully, that their symptoms were minimized and that they were repeatedly sent home.
Asked about these comments, Racette said the hospital can’t deal with the complaints if they don’t hear about them, and it is working to make it easier for people to make them.
Chrissy Isaacs of Asubpeeschoseewagong (Grassy Narrows) First Nation, 90 kilometres north of Kenora, said that in 2007, the hospital kept sending her home when she sought help for pain in her stomach.
“The last time I was there, one of the nurses was like, ‘You know, you’re going through this because you drink too much,” Isaacs told CBC News.
“She didn’t know my story. She didn’t know that I was actually sober for four years.”
In the end, Isaacs said, she needed emergency surgery to remove her bladder.
WATCH | Chrissy Isaacs shares her daughter’s experience:
(Warning: This video contains discussion of suicide)
Neither systemic nor direct racism has been proven to have affected Sky’s care, but there is a long, documented history of systemic racism in Canada’s health-care system.
Inquests into several deaths of Indigenous people in recent years have found racism and stereotyping played a role in the inadequate care they received. Racism was found to have been a factor in the cases of Joyce Echaquan of Atikamekw First Nation in Quebec, Brian Sinclair from Sagkeeng First Nation in Manitoba and Aklavik elder Hugh Papik in the Northwest Territories.
In 2020, the B.C. government’s In Plain Sight inquiry into Indigenous-specific racism in health care found “common and widespread” stereotyping that included seeing Indigenous patients as:
- Less “worthy” of care.
- Seeking drugs.
- Bad parents.
- Less capable of taking care of their own health.
The B.C. In Plain Sight report explained the way systemic racism manifests in health care, including that Indigenous people disproportionately experience longer wait times, lack of communication, minimizing of concerns, inappropriate or no pain management, medical mistakes and a lack of respect for cultural protocols. It also leads to mistrust and the avoidance of hospitals by Indigenous people, according to the report.
Isaacs said that happens for people living in First Nations in northwestern Ontario, where there are also concerns about limited in-community access to health-care providers.
She said she no longer trusts the hospital in Kenora.
“If I was in a life-or-death situation, I’d go to Winnipeg,” she said. (Winnipeg is an additional 200 kilometres away.)
Hospital reviewing complaints process
CBC News asked Racette if systemic racism in the hospital system exists and affects the care of patients.
“There are cases of racism here that I’m aware of,” he said.
He said there have been instances where clinically, all the appropriate decisions were made, but interactions with staff may not have been “respectful,” resulting in a negative patient experience.
Lake of the Woods is reviewing the complaints process to allow for more conversations with Indigenous patients and families, Racette said, to determine the extent of problems involving that population.
About 50 per cent of staff have gone through in-person cultural awareness training, a process Racette said was delayed because of COVID-19. The hospital president said he wants staff to be trained on how to apply that cultural knowledge to improve patient care but didn’t say when that may happen.
The hospital is also putting an elders advisory council in place and has two Indigenous patient navigators, which welcome Indigenous people and help them access care, in efforts to develop and implement an action plan.
“We understand the importance of this,” Racette said. “We have lots of work to do to build trust, and actions will speak.”
Accountability and transparency will be central to that work, said Dr. Lisa Richardson, a physician of mixed Anishinaabe descent and the associate dean of inclusion and diversity at the Temerty Faculty of Medicine at the University of Toronto.
WATCH | Dr. Lisa Richardson talks about what hospitals must do to address racism:
“There actually needs to be specific actions and metrics for change, and those need to be then reported on in an honest and truthful way,” Richardson said.
Those “specific actions” include collection of data and complaints around racism and regular public acknowledgment of what the hospital has or has not done well, she said.
National and provincial standards around culturally safe and appropriate care need to be put in place, Richardson said, and requirements should be embedded into accreditation processes for hospitals. More Indigenous health-care practitioners and leaders also need to be trained, recruited and supported, she said.
Bruyère said talking about pain and hardships is harder for First Nations people because residential schools taught them to stay quiet — to push their feelings and experiences down and keep going.
He’s asking other families to share their stories and concerns.
“That has to stop somewhere, and we’re not afraid to talk, to tell the truth, because we’re not lying,” he said.
“We’re not the first family this has happened to, probably won’t be the last. But at least the person next door is going to know it’s OK to say something.”