The life and death of Brian Sinclair
Brian Sinclair was a marginalized, indigent, and very vulnerable Aboriginal man. He was cognitively impaired and incapable of advocating for himself. As a double-amputee, he was confined to a wheelchair, and was also afflicted by chronic illness and by the consequences of a former substance addiction. He had many challenges, but he was a human being. He did not deserve to be ignored to death in a Manitoba, Canada hospital for 34 hours due to medical professionals making false racist assumptions about him.
Brian Sinclair’s parents were Ojibwa people living in Manitoba, Canada. They lost their Indigenous “status” as a result of the application of unjust and discriminatory Canadian law, and with it, they lost their treaty rights and their eligibility to live in their own communities. In the 1970s they migrated to the nearest urban centre, Winnipeg, but found opportunities to be scarce and racial discrimination rampant. The family lived in poverty while alcohol and substance abuse took its toll and tore the family apart. This was a fate familiar to many victims of Canada’s anti-Indigenous laws. Brian Sinclair and his brothers were unable to escape the devastating intergenerational effects of these discriminatory laws.
On September 19, 2008 at 14h15, Brian Sinclair attended a community health clinic in Winnipeg (the Health Action Centre) complaining of abdominal pain, no urinary output in the previous 24 hours, and possible problems with his catheter. The physician gave him a referral letter and directed him to immediately attend the Emergency Department of the Winnipeg Health Sciences Centre for further urgent assistance and treatment.
Mr. Sinclair arrived at the Health Sciences Centre at 14h53. A hospital employee at Triage spoke with Mr. Sinclair, made some notes, and then directed him to wait. Mr. Sinclair obediently wheeled himself into the waiting room. He remained there in his wheelchair in the waiting room for 34 hours, in considerable discomfort, vomiting, and slowly succumbing to sepsis. No medical staff ever spoke with him during that 34 hour period, even when strangers and non-medical staff tried to get the nurses to help Mr. Sinclair.
On September 21, 2008, shortly after midnight, a good stranger in the waiting room someone noticed that Mr. Sinclair appeared not to be breathing, was very distraught by the fact that no one seemed to care, and finally literally grabbed a security guard and told him to do something. Finally, medical staff kicked into action. They wheeled Mr. Sinclair to the treatment area where an emergency doctor attempted resuscitation, but it was much too late. Brian Sinclair was pronounced dead at 00h51 on Sunday, September 21, 2008. At this time, the referral letter from the physician at the Community Health Clinic was found in Mr Sinclair’s pocket.
The medical cause of Brian Sinclair’s death was “acute peritonitis due to severe acute cystitis due to neurogenic bladder.” This condition was treatable.
Brian Sinclair would have lived if he had been provided with the prompt and appropriate emergency care he so badly needed, and the necessaries of life such as food and water, at the Winnipeg Health Sciences Centre.
The Hospital and Provincial Government officials indicated shortly after the death of Brian Sinclair that he had not registered for care on arrival at the hospital, with the apparent implication that Brian Sinclair may have been somehow responsible for his own death.
After some months, Manitoba’s Chief Medical Examiner issued a report based on surveillance camera footage that contradicted this official government misinformation: Brian Sinclair had reported to the triage area of the hospital to be registered and attended to, and had spoken to a health care employee there who apparently directed him to sit and wait in the waiting room.
After many years, an inquest was held into Brian Sinclair’s death. At the inquest, ample evidence came out that hospital staff made false assumptions about Brian Sinclair because of the way he looked: a shabbily-dressed Indigenous double-amputee in a wheelchair. None of them ever spoke with him, but assumed he was just in the emergency waiting room because he was homeless or “sleeping it off” and not because he was in need of urgent medical care. Despite this evidence, the inquest judge decided to stop short of conducting a meaningful inquiry into how racism and stereotyping contributed to Brian Sinclair’s death, in a context in which Indigenous people in Manitoba and across Canada disproportionately suffer poor health outcomes.
In the end, Brian Sinclair, an Indigenous man, was ignored to death over 34 hours, in a G8 state, in the 21st Century. He was killed by racism.