Adrian Dix: End the lethally racist abstinence policy

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David Dennis is a 42-year old Nuu-chah-nulth father of five and Indigenous political leader. He has been diagnosed with end-stage liver disease and doctors have told him he has less than one month to live.

A liver transplant would greatly increase his chances of survival but a discriminatory abstinence policy means he must be sober for six months before he is even eligible for a life-saving transplant. He has been sober for two months since the diagnosis, and he and his family simply do not have the time to wait any longer before a transplant. Dave, who is the president of the Frank Paul Society and past president of the United Native Nations, says “I’m not just at the bottom of the waiting list for a liver transplant; I’ve been kicked off the list entirely. I want to continue to live and be here for my children and family. In order to do so, we must first get rid of this lethal form of racism."

This week Dave filed a legal complaint at the B.C Human Rights Tribunal to challenge the abstinence policy, which blatantly discriminates against people with alcohol use disorder. This policy disproportionately impacts Indigenous people like Dave who are dealing with the inter-generational impact of centuries of racist and genocidal settler-colonial policies including forced family separation, residential schools, theft of land, deliberate impoverishment, police and state violence, and biological warfare.

According to Union of BC Indian Chiefs President Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, "Appropriate responses to Indigenous people whose lives are marked by the trauma of oppression must be empathy and access to healthcare, not another door shut to justice and equality. An important and easy way for the government to make good on its commitments toward reconciliation and equity would be to end this abstinence policy. We are looking for immediate action-it is unconscionable for even one more person to be punished as a result of this systemic racism killing our people.”

The Selkirk Liver Society has found an average of five people die every day in Canada from alcohol-associated liver disease, most never even assessed for a liver transplant. There is no medical basis for the abstinence policy. Dr. Thomas Starzl, a liver transplant specialist concludes “the imposition of an arbitrary period of abstinence before going forward with transplantation would seem medically unsound or even inhumane.”

The policy is an antiquated one, rooted in moral not medical judgement about alcohol use. After a constitutional challenge to a similar policy in the Ontario Superior Court of Justice, there is a three-year pilot project there now moving ahead with transplants for alcohol-associated liver disease without the six-month wait.

The provincial government has committed to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Calls to Action, and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The TRC Calls to Action explicitly call upon all levels to government to acknowledge that Indigenous health in Canada is a direct result of both ongoing colonial policies of impoverishment and grossly inadequate health services continuing to violate the healthcare rights of Indigenous people.

B.C. must end the abstinence policy, which constitutes a discriminatory denial of health care services, and immediately waive the abstinence policy for Dave.

More information:

David Dennis, UBCIC, and Frank Paul Society's legal challenge

Indigenous man denied spot on B.C. liver-transplant list calls alcohol abstinence policy a ‘lethal form of racism’ in Star Vancouver

Man with end-stage liver disease files human rights complaint over transplant policy on CTV.