The family of Joyce Echaquan is pursuing legal action against a number of parties and organizations they believe contributed to her death.
Echaquan’s family and their newly-appointed legal counsel made the announcement in a news conference Friday at the Native Friendship Centre of Lanaudiere in Joliette, Que., the city where she died.
“I’m convinced my partner is dead because systemic racism has contaminated the Joliette hospital,” Carol Dubé told reporters through tears a day after addressing Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett and Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller in Ottawa.
“They killed my partner,” he added. “My partner died in agony, surrounded by people filled with contempt.”
“She deserved to be surrounded by family before the end,” Dubé said.
Echaquan, 37, was subjected to degrading remarks at the hospital northeast of Montreal before she died.
The Atikamekw mother of seven filmed herself from her hospital bed while she was in clear distress and pleading for help.
Toward the end of the video, two female hospital staff can be seen entering the room and are heard making insulting comments towards Echaquan, who had been admitted with stomach pain.
“If she didn’t do that, how many other victims would there be? That we couldn’t denounce, because we didn’t know?” Dubé said.
Jean-Francois Bertrand, a Quebec City-based lawyer, said the family wants justice for the “racist and degrading” treatment Echaquan suffered in hospital, and that they’re prepared to pursue the case to the fullest extent allowed by law. 2
“We’ve been witness to atrocities concerning First Nations for too long,” Betrand explained. “More often than not these things happen in silence and are not punished because there’s no video.”
“Here – thanks, unfortunately, to the presence of [Joyce’s] video – all of society has mobilized, and I hope this is the last time we see such a situation.”
“We’re in 2020, not the 1800’s” Bertrand added. “The government needs to wake and stop making grand statements and beautiful promises – they need to act.”
He said the family is looking for a just and appropriate redress to ensure discriminatory and repeated acts of violence against Indigenous people finally cease.
The hospital, as well as provincial leaders, confirmed that an internal review is underway. A coroner’s inquiry is also underway, according to Quebec’s Indigenous Affairs Minister Sylvie D’Amours.
Read More: Joyce Echaquan
But in order to obtain “justice” for Echaquan and her family, Bertrand says the first step is to sue Joliette hospital – and all implicated health care workers – for damages.
“Hitting hard,” as Bertrand puts it, will set a legal precedent for potential future cases.
“Everyone who didn’t say anything is just as responsible as those who were heard speaking,” Bertrand said in his address.
A request will be made on behalf of Echaquan’s family to IVAC – Quebec’s crime victims compensation program.
Bertrand believes there is ample proof that a criminal act was committed the night that Echaquan died – but did not disclose details on Friday.
The third and fourth steps, he says, involve filing a human rights complaint for the “racist and discriminatory treatment” Echaquan endured while seeking care.
According to Bertrand, a additional complaint will also be filed with “police authorities,” though few details were offered.
The family is also demanding a public inquiry to assess and investigate the numerous – and similar – allegations of mistreatment of First Nations at Joliette hospital that have surfaced in the days following Echaquan’s death.
“I’m asking Premier Francois Legault: what’s the problem at Joliette hospital?”
Nurses “unfit” to continue working, lawyer says
The health authority that manages Joliette hospital previously confirmed that one nurse captured on Echaquan’s video was fired following the incident.
Premier Francois Legault confirmed this information on Tuesday, calling the incident “totally unacceptable.”
On Thursday, it was announced that a patient attendant involved in Echaquan’s care was also fired.
The health authority for the Lanaudiere region said in a statement that it was also working with members of the Atikamekw community to put in place concrete actions to prevent similar incidents in the future.
But Bertrand plans to take it a step further.
“Those people are not fit to continue in the nursing profession,” Bertrand said.
“We won’t be satisfied with a firing that was obvious – we will also be filing a complaint with the Quebec order of nurses to attempt to ensure the [nurses] involved lose their right to practice.”
L’Ordre des infirmiers/infirmieres du Quebec – or the OIIQ – is the body that dispenses nursing licenses in Quebec.
In a media release issued Wednesday, they said the facts of the case are “disturbing and deplorable.”
“All Quebecers – without exception – have the right to receive safe and quality health care and services imbued with respect and humanity,” their statement reads.
According to the statement, the OIIQ has a “multitude of tools enabling it to intervene,” and while informed of the situation, the organization “has a duty of secrecy in order not to interfere with the investigation.”
The process will only become public if a complaint is filed with the disciplinary council, but they say recommendations of the coroner’s inquest “will be followed with diligence.”
AFNQL Regional Chief cancels meeting with Quebec Premier
Meanwhile, Ghislain Picard, regional chief of the Assembly of First Nations Quebec-Labrador, cancelled a scheduled morning meeting with Premier Francois Legault, because members of the Atikamekw nation were not allowed to accompany him.
Picard told APTN News the meeting was set weeks ago, but was moved up considering the uproar over Echaquan’s death.
As he puts it, he AFNQL’s decision-making is based on involvement from all implicated chiefs and nations.
He says he was uneasy proceeding with a high-stakes meeting without Atikamekw leadership present, so he cancelled in an act of solidarity.
“The Atikamekw Nation has made it clear that there’s an urgency here for the government of Quebec to act. And I understand the best assurance that they had – that they had received – was yes, a meeting is possible, but it’s not going to be in the short term,” Picard explained. “The Atikamekw nation is saying ‘that’s not good enough for us.’”
Paul-Emile Ottawa, chief of the Atikamekw council in Manawan, called Friday for Legault to take immediate measures to make sure what happened to Echaquan doesn’t occur again.
He said he wants a nation-to-nation meeting with the premier, but a request to participate in Friday’s meeting was turned down by provincial officials.
He says they will continue pressing until a meeting is set.
“A message for premier Legault: yes, there is systemic racism in Quebec. It’s time to face this problem together,” Ottawa said.
“I agree with Joyce’s family – we’re happy there’s an internal investigation and a coroner’s inquiry – but it’s not enough. There needs to be a criminal investigation to shed light on this issue.”
During Friday’s daily COVID-19 briefing, Legault said this is not the first time Picard has cancelled a meeting with Quebec.
According to Legault – Atikamekw participation was never requested.
He says he doesn’t understand what game the AFNQL is playing.
“I have a lot of trouble following Chief Picard,” Legault explained. “Twice now he’s cancelled meetings with short notice.”
“I don’t know where he’s going [with this]. Why he’s doing this,” Legault added. “These meetings are important because yes, there is racism in Quebec towards First Nations. There is racism and we need to fight that racism – that’s part of the recommendations of the Viens Commission.”
“But we need someone sitting on the other side of the table to work on those initiatives together.”
With files from the Canadian Press.