Just north of Montreal, hundreds of people assembled outside Joliette Hospital chanting “justice for Joyce” late into Tuesday night.
The chant was for Joyce Echaquan, a 37-year-old mother of seven from the Atikamekw community of Manawan, who died on Monday shortly after going live on Facebook and recording the abuse endured while left in the care of an unknown number of nurses.
The livestream captured taunts and racial slurs hurled towards Echaquan, who was seeking treatment for stomach issues.
She reportedly expressed concerns about being over-medicated shortly before she died.
Nurses recorded on the live stream can be heard saying, “Are you finished fooling around? Well you’re f*cking stupid,” says one nurse.
“F*cking stupid idiot,” says another.
“What do you think if your children saw you like that? Think of others a little bit?”
Someone else then adds that “they’re way better for f*cking than anything else.”
The video ends when a nurse looks down at the cell phone, and stops the feed.
Echaquan’s partner, Carol Dubé, says the family is grateful for the outpouring of support – but they’re still coming to terms with their loss.
“She left me alone with the kids,” Dube said. “We promised each other we were going to get married.
“Now it’s all broken,” he added.
Echaquan’s cries of pain and distress were heard around the world – reviving calls for government to properly address and amend issues of systemic racism and blatant mistreatment within the health care system.
The hospital – located just over an hour outside of Montreal – has a reputation that’s well-known within nearby First Nations communities.
“The administrator said to me ‘you are Indigenous, you come here just to get drugs!’” one woman cried out through a megaphone.
Another woman, Christina Bégin, described what she overheard from her doctor after waking up mid-operation when general anaesthesia wore off.
“I woke up, and the gynecologist said something degrading about Indigenous people,” Bégin told APTN News. “He said that Indigenous people are all a bunch of alcoholics.”
Federal organizations, leaders, call for action
Marc Miller, minister of Indigenous Services, did not mince words when it came to qualifying the circumstances of Echaquan’s death.
He said Quebecers – and Canadians – are reacting to the tragedy with a “visceral rage.”
“The best case scenario is this person died at the hands of, of a racist, and the worst case scenario is much worse,” Miller said Wednesday in Ottawa. “It makes you think about criminality and it’s why, it’s why we need to get a full inquest into what happened.
Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations Carolyn Bennett called Echaquan’s death “heart wrenching, gut wrenching,” adding that it’s been a terrible week for Canada.
Bennett said the events in Joliette will require an inquest and “proper investigation.”
“Ever since April, every Thursday night I have a call with a group of Indigenous physicians and every week we are hearing stories like this, about why their patients don’t want to go to hospital, why they are wanting to find culturally safe and Indigenous practitioners who will understand them,” Bennett said. “Where they won’t be faced with this kind of racism.”
In what was perhaps a reference to François Legault’s waffling over whether systemic racism exists in Quebec, Bennett said, “if you can’t utter the words systemic racism, then you’re probably part of the problem.”
“You know, in the past, there have been horrible accounts of testing and experimenting on Indigenous peoples. There’s a well-founded skepticism towards the health system.”
Perry Bellegarde, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations called the nurses’ actions “incredibly racist and insensitive.”
“Discrimination against First Nations people remains prevalent in the health care system, and this needs to stop,” Bellegarde said in a statement. “I am encouraged that Premier Legault has expressed disappointment in this matter, but I continue to encourage the Quebec government to work with First Nations to fully implement the Viens Commission’s recommendations.”
Lorraine Whitman, president of the Native Women’s Association of Canada, described the “horror” and “disgust” of listening to Echaquan’s cries for help shortly before her death.
“It makes us wonder how many other Indigenous women are being subjected to this sort of abuse in Quebec and elsewhere in Canada, but did not have the courage or ability to film their own distress,” Whitman said via statement.
“Only when governments recognize the harms that are being perpetrated against Indigenous people, take steps to correct them, and make the necessary reparations, will repugnant incidents like the one endured by Joyce Echaquan be prevented.”
Calls for Quebec’s Indigenous Affairs minister to resign
Opposition party leaders in Quebec are calling for Indigenous Affairs Minister Sylvie D’Amours’ resignation in the wake of Echaquan’s passing.
According to the Liberal Party opposition leader, Dominque Anglade, D’Amours “insulted” First Nations with her response to the events at Joliette hospital.
On Tuesday, after the video of Echaquan’s last moments was circulated widely on social media, D’Amours posted a terse statement to Facebook, calling the situation “alarming” while promising an investigation.
However, on Wednesday, D’Amours’ office marked the first anniversary of the Viens commission report by issuing a press release extolling the work accomplished in collaboration with First Nations over the last year.
According to D’Amours, 51 of the report’s 142 calls to action have been completed, or are in the process of being completed.
Anglade, however, said D’Amours has “done nothing for a year,” and is no longer fit to be a minister.
“It’s seriously laughing at people,” Anglade said during a press briefing at the Quebec legislature. “I think that with the press release, she has already written her letter of resignation, quite frankly.”
In a press release issued Wednesday afternoon – presumably after Anglade’s comments, D’Amours once again expressed condolences to Echaquan’s family and the misspelled “Atikamewk [sic] community.”
“We never pretended that we could change 150 years of history in one year,” D’Amours wrote. “What happened is unacceptable and intolerable in a society like ours in 2020.”
One year ago today, a Quebec Inquiry into relations between public services and Indigenous peoples – known as the Viens Commission – made 142 concrete recommendations about improving the quality, and overall sensitivity, of services offered across the province.
Even so, Premier François Legault struggles to acknowledge the racism that permeates Quebec’s systems and services.
Legault did denounce the actions of the nurses charged with Echaquan’s care – confirming in a news conference that at least one of the nurses implicated was fired – but he added that most people in the health care system would say theirs was not a typical response.
Impatient with Quebec’s lagging response to the issues raised in the Viens Commission, the Assembly of First Nations Quebec-Labrador moved ahead with their own strategic plan to combat systemic racism.
A recent survey conducted by the AFNQL showed majority support by non-Indigenous Quebecers for this initiative.
“We don’t want to get too caught up in what the government has or hasn’t done,” Picard said in an interview Tuesday night. “I think it’s a waste of energy. Mostly, we need to concentrate on what needs to be done as of now.”
“The plan that we have submitted is to target the [Quebecois] population. I think it’s a responsibility for everyone,” he added.
Constant Awashish, grand chief of the Atikamekw Nation, says Quebec’s promise of a coroner’s inquest and an administrative review falls short. He says he wants to see a public inquiry.
While the family is anxious to know more about how Echaquan died, it’s cold comfort for the man who was once her life partner.
“I’m all torn up,” Dubé added.
With files from Sylvie Ambroise and The Canadian Press.