The Quebec inquiry looking into the death of Joyce Echaquan, the Atikamekw mother who died at a hospital in Joliette, northeast of Montreal, heard from three nurses who were on duty the day of her death.
All appeared with a publication ban on their identities.
One of them, who was an emergency room nurse at the hospital for a decade and now works elsewhere, testified she’d heard disparaging comments from colleagues about Indigenous and other patients, including those who didn’t speak French.
She said she is disappointed her former colleagues hadn’t been more forthcoming.
“In all honesty, I’m quite surprised there aren’t many people talking about it,” she said. “I can’t be the only who heard things like this, so I imagine there’s an omerta or something that people don’t want to talk about it.”
Echaquan filmed herself as a nurse and an orderly were heard insulting and mocking her shortly before she died last September.
The nurse testified she wasn’t surprised to hear it was her former colleague on the Echaquan video, relating an experience with the same nurse from a few years earlier. She alleged the nurse made comments about a young Syrian refugee who came to the hospital with his family for treatment.
“They don’t come from here,” the fired nurse allegedly told her, frustrated with how long triage took due to translation.
The witness said she first encountered Echaquan in late August 2020 during an emergency room visit for the same severe stomach problems that hospitalized her in September 2020.
Coroner apologizes, denies bias amid criticism over comments
The coroner leading the inquiry said Tuesday she has been impartial from the outset, and she’s sorry if comments she made last week offended anyone.
Gehane Kamel made the mid-inquiry statement Tuesday after some of her remarks openly challenging health-care workers were criticized in the media, raising questions about her impartiality.
Kamel said she remains unbiased and committed to transparency.
“Some of my comments may have given the appearance of a certain bias on my part, but I affirm that at all times, since the first day of this inquest, I respected the important duty of independence and impartiality as a coroner,” Kamel said.
“I can understand that my comments may have upset some people, and I’m really and truly sorry. I take note of this seriously for the future.”
On Friday, the province’s chief coroner issued a statement reiterating her confidence in Kamel. Kamel said last week was an emotionally charged one at the inquiry, adding that the road ahead would be rocky with sensitive issues to be tackled.
“But we have a duty to shed light on this death,” she said.
Kamel last week expressed frustration and impatience with medical staff at the hospital northeast of Montreal, who for the most part have testified they never saw racist or denigrating behaviour towards Indigenous patients.
The coroner also questioned the credibility of testimony from the two workers caught on video insulting Echaquan.
Conrad Lord, a lawyer representing the fired nurse, noted Kamel was accused of being hostile toward witnesses, including his client. He questioned whether Kamel shouldn’t recuse herself and whether her final report would lack credibility and objectivity.
Kamel replied she would see the inquiry through to the end.
With files from the Canadian Press.