The Atikamekw Nation says it’s “shaken” by Quebec’s decision not to formally adopt Joyce’s Principle – a document addressing shortcomings in health care – because it uses the term systemic racism.
“Don’t we all want to create decolonized institutions for our children?” Constant Awashish, grand chief of the Atikamekw National Council, said via statement.
“Why let an opportunity to make change just pass by?”
For Manawan Chief Paul-Emile Ottawa, “the government’s response reminds us the political will is not there.”
Gregory Kelley, the provincial Liberal critic for Indigenous Affairs, moved to have Joyce’s Principle adopted officially in the National Assembly on Tuesday afternoon. But provincial party leaders shut it down over its references to systemic racism.
Speaking at a press conference in Quebec City on Friday, Kelley unequivocally compared Echaquan’s death in late September to George Floyd’s at the hands of Minneapolis police officers in May.
Like Floyd, Echaquan’s last moments were captured on video.
The 37-year-old mother of seven died at Joliette Hospital – an hour northeast of Montreal – after documenting racist comments made by her caregivers.
Her family is in the midst of building a legal case against the hospital and all implicated staff members.
The Atikamekw Nation, meanwhile, mobilized to draft a concrete plan to improve the health care experience for all First Nations and Inuit.
As part of its conditions, Joyce’s Principle calls on Quebec to “recognize the systemic racism Indigenous peoples are faced with, notably concerning equal access – without discrimination – to all social and health services.”
This is where parties are snagged: Premier Francois Legault and his provincial ministers repeatedly refuse to acknowledge Quebec’s racism issues as systemic.
But for opposition leaders, the evidence is already on the table.
“After the Viens Commission report, after the ‘Principe de Joyce’ document – it is clearly, clearly documented that systemic racism exists in our institutions,” Kelley told reporters.
Assembly of First Nations Quebec-Labrador Regional Chief Ghislain Picard agrees.
“What’s at stake here, on a human, social, and political level, must leave no room for partisan pettiness,” Picard said in a statement responding to this week’s stalemate at the National Assembly.
“The AFNQL will not accept it,” he added.
On Friday morning, Kelley called directly on Indigenous Affairs Minister Ian Lafreniere to steer the Legault government to acknowledge systemic racism.
“They’re not asking us to take portions of the report. They’re asking us to adopt the entire thing. And those two words – according to [Lafreniere], are the only things that are blocking it,” Kelley explained.
“When you speak with Atikamekw leadership – when you speak with people from Manawan – the words ‘systemic racism’ are in their mouths, and they have to be recognized,” he added.
But at his own press conference on Friday afternoon – after announcing an $18.1 million investment in housing for Indigenous students – Lafreniere didn’t budge.
He maintains Quebec’s position on the issue has always been clear.
“They might be disappointed – but they can’t be surprised,” Lafreniere said. “This is a wonderful program, we believe in that,” Lafreniere said when asked about Joyce’s Principle. “But you do understand that we don’t have the same definition of systemic racism. That’s the only part we put aside.
“We agree to disagree on the systemic approach.”
However, Lafreniere says he’s committed to making progress on the recommendations made in the Viens Commission’s 488-page final report, which found rampant systemic discrimination in most of Quebec’s public services.
He’s promised one announcement in this area every week until Christmas.
In the last month, Quebec committed to investing $15 million for cultural safety training in hospitals, construction of a brand-new Native Friendship Centre in Joliette, more frequent roundtable discussions between the Premier and First Nations leaders, and as of Friday, construction of three student housing centres.
After receiving Joyce’s Principle – a “heck of a presentation,” in his own words – Lafreniere says Health Minister Christian Dube will look into hiring a provincial ombudsman for health and social services.
“This is not going to stop us fighting racism – that’s the reason we’re still in contact with different nations, and we’re still doing some announcements, and we’re still working together,” he added.
“Not going with systemic racism is not going to stop us from fighting racism.”