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The Guardian - US
The Guardian - US
Leyland Cecco in Toronto

Indigenous people sue over alleged Canadian secret medical experiment

The supreme court of Nova Scotia.
The supreme court of Nova Scotia. The lawsuit revives the painful history of Canada conducting medical experiments on Indigenous peoples. Photograph: Prashanth Bala Ramachandra/Alamy

Members of a First Nation in Canada have launched a lawsuit alleging they were subjected to a secret medical experiment without their consent that left them feeling “violated and humiliated”.

The class-action lawsuit, which was certified by the Nova Scotia supreme court in early February, revives the painful history of Canada conducting medical experiments on Indigenous peoples and the persistent discrimination they continue to face within the country’s healthcare system.

In a statement of claim, Chief Andrea Paul, the lead plaintiff, says she and 60 other members of the Pictou Landing First Nation participated in an MRI in 2017 for a medical research project administered by the Canadian Alliance for Healthy Hearts and Minds.

But after the test finished, staff at the hospital in Halifax kept her for a second test.

“As she lay inside the claustrophobic MRI chamber, holding her breath, and cringing from the loud banging sounds around her, the MRI scans generated data that revealed intimate medical information about her body without her knowledge or consent,” reads the statement of claim. “She had been singled out for the one reason – she was Mi’kmaq.”

A year later, Paul, who also serves as regional chief for the Assembly of First Nations in Nova Scotia, learned that two radiologists had allegedly used the second procedure to conduct MRI elastography to study the livers of Indigenous subjects, without their knowledge or consent.

The class-action lawsuit has named the radiologists Robert Miller and Sharon Clarke as defendants. According to the claim, Miller met with Paul in 2018 and told her the MRI had been used for a broader research project titled “MRI Findings of Liver Disease in an Atlantic Canada First Nations Population”. Miller, an associate professor at Dalhousie University’s faculty of medicine who previously served as president of the Canadian Association of Radiology, allegedly told her the findings had been shared with a radiology conference after initially denying disclosing the test results.

Neither researchers with the Canadian Alliance for Healthy Hearts and Minds nor the plaintiffs were given the results of the test.

Canada has a dark history for its treatment of Indigenous peoples under the guise of healthcare, with the deadly effects of systemic racism persisting into the present day.

In the 1940s, nearly 1,300 Indigenous children across Canada were starved for studies about the effects of malnutrition as part of a government-run study. Indigenous women have also been sterilized against their will, leading human rights groups to call for an end to the practice.

“Knowing the long history of subjecting Indigenous people in Canada to cruel medical experiments … and to confirm the Indigenous right to own and control research data of Indigenous people, Chief Andrea felt powerless, vulnerable, and discriminated against because she was Mi’kmaq.”

The claim also asserts that Indigenous people “have been reluctant to participate in health research and receive treatment from non-Indigenous doctors, health centers, and hospitals” because of a legacy of mistreatment and abuse.

“There is an historically and evidentiary based mistrust at the healthcare system,” the claim reads. Paul says in the claim she had worked to persuade community members to participate in the initial MRI test and the actions of the two radiologists is emblematic of the mistrust held by Indigenous communities.

Paul and 60 members of Pictou Landing are seeking a declaration from the defendants for invasion of privacy, unlawful imprisonment, negligence, breach of fiduciary duty, breach of contract, charter breaches and damages. They also argue the tests amount to assault and battery because the MRI scan procedures “amount to a medical procedure that was performed on [the plaintiffs] without their knowledge or informed consent”.

A lawyer for the two radiologists has said neither will provide comment. None of the allegations have been tested in court and no hearing dates have been set.

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