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Black women's disproportionate role in Quebec health care source of community pride

MONTREAL — When 26-year-old nurse Stephanie Bumba looks at herself in the mirror wearing her uniform, she feels pride and sees a past she wants to honour.
Nurse Stephanie Bumba poses outside Université de Montréal, in Montreal, Thursday, Feb. 3, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes.

MONTREAL — When 26-year-old nurse Stephanie Bumba looks at herself in the mirror wearing her uniform, she feels pride and sees a past she wants to honour.

Bumba, who is of Congolese descent, is among the 37 per cent of employed Black women in Quebec who work in the province's health-care system. Among employed Quebec women who aren't racialized or Indigenous, 24 per cent work in health care, according to 2021 data from Statistics Canada.

"When I wear my work uniform, I see the sacrifice my parents made. I see someone who's resilient and humble," Bumba, who works at a Montreal hospital, said in a recent interview. "And I don't want to lose that." 

The disproportionate role Black women play in health care is a reflection of values and culture, Bumba and other members of Quebec's Black community say. But that rich tradition of caring for others has placed a burden on Black Quebec households during the pandemic: they have had higher rates of COVID-19 infection compared with the general public, research indicates. 

Bumba laments that more attention was paid to high rates of COVID-19 infection in Black communities than to the contribution of Black people in the health-care system.

"When we look at the past, we see our ancestors had so many obstacles," Bumba said in a recent interview, referring to colonialism and slavery. "But we also see that at a certain time, Black people did incredible things in health care, but we're never recognized."

For Montrealer Jennifer Philogène, director of Quebec's chapter for the Canadian Black Nurses Alliance, the high proportion of Black women in health care can be explained by culture. Strong family bonds are an important part of Black communities, Philogène said, where altruism comes naturally. 

"I think it has to do with our values — to pay it forward and the glorification that comes with it," Philogène said in a recent interview. "There is not one hospital in Quebec where there's no Black person working now."

That work, however, comes at a price, she said, pointing to the impact of COVID-19 in Quebec's Black communities.

Montreal's public health department in August 2020 published a research paper indicating the city's Black population was among the most affected by COVID-19 during the pandemic's first months. In Montreal, outside of institutional living facilities such as long-term care homes, the department found that in neighbourhoods with relatively high Black populations, the rate of COVID-19 infection was roughly three times higher than in neighbourhoods with lower Black populations.

One of the reasons cited by the city was the higher risk of Black people contracting COVID-19 at work.

"We get involved, we give the best of ourselves, but we get infected and we spread it to our families," Philogène said.

Marjorie Villefranche and Guerda Amazan, with Maison d'Haiti, a Montreal-based group serving the province's Haitian diaspora, say the overrepresentation of Black women in Quebec's health-care system can be traced back to the early 20th century.  

"When people would leave their country to come study here, this was a stable option; they knew they would be accepted in health care," Villefranche said in a recent interview.

"Now, if you ask Black women to stop working for a day, the health-care system would collapse!" 

Guerda said she feels the role Black women play in the health system isn't properly recognized, even though the provincial government often speaks about the strain the pandemic has placed on health workers.

"Black women are among those who are still underpaid," she said, "who can't easily access higher positions."

Régine Laurent, who in 2009 became the first Black president of a major Quebec union, said in a recent interview that she has advocated for the last 30 years for greater recognition of Black health workers. She led the Fédération interprofessionnelle de la santé, which represents nurses and other health workers, such as respiratory therapists, until 2017.

Laurent, 64, said she grew up being told it was up to her whether she would let the colour of her skin define her. "And what you have between your two ears, it's up to you to use it," she said her mother would tell her. 

She said her role as union president came with a lot of pressure, as she was not only representing her members, but also Black health workers across the province. "It was easy to be motivated by this need that I had to do as much as I could with the time I had," Laurent said. 

Bumba, who in her spare time produces online content portraying Black pioneers in health sciences, said that she, too, feels pressure to represent her community with honour.

"It's because of our history that we feel like we need to be role models for younger people," she said, "so they don't think it's going to be hard for them."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published on Feb. 13, 2022. 

Virginie Ann, The Canadian Press

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