“Like you, I don’t know what awaits us,” Carol Dubé said during a media scrum outside the Trois-Rivieres courthouse on Thursday morning.
“I feel ready. I feel confident. My family is here. Our children are here with us – we’re nervous, but confident.”
Echaquan, a 37-year-old Atikamekw mother of seven, was subjected to disparaging comments from caregivers as she lay dying in a Quebec hospital in September of 2020.
Female staff at Joliette hospital were heard insulting and mocking Echaquan in a video livestreamed to Facebook – one which prompted widespread indignation across the country.
Two nurses were subsequently dismissed.
The incident is now subject of two inquiries: a closed door coroner’s investigation, and the public inquest.
The coroner’s inquest does not rule on liability, but rather looks at the causes and circumstances of a death and comes up with recommendations to avoid similar occurrences.
Coroner Géhane Kamel will preside over the public hearings and will hear from about 50 witnesses, including health-care staff – whose identities are protected by publication bans – as well as expert witnesses and members of Echaquan’s family.
In her opening statement, Kamel explained her role is to maintain an open mind, but she emphasized the behaviour and attitude of hospital staff toward Echaquan are integral to understanding the circumstances of her death.
“I am deeply convinced that we must learn to live together and to welcome differences as a collective wealth,” Kamel said. “These cultural differences are gems that should be welcomed by all who live in Quebec.”
The Echaquan family’s lawyer, Patrick Martin-Menard, told reporters the inquest was an important step for a family that has been seeking answers.
“I hope [Quebec] pays attention to what happens,” he said in response to a question from APTN News.
“There will be a lot of evidence that comes out that should give birth to political will to really affect actual change instead of putting this – whatever report that comes out of this – on the shelf and moving on.”
Constant Awashish, grand chief of the Atikamekw Nation, said his idea of “justice for Joyce” – and for First Nations overall – would be to “feel the sense of belonging” in Quebec.
“I’ve said that many times in other tribunes: we want to feel like we belong to society and we can contribute in a positive way – not like we try to force ourselves into it,” Awashish explained.
“I think it’s important for me that things change. I don’t want to be worried, personally, and I don’t want [my children] to be scared to get public services. I want them to feel free to be what they are as First Nations: to be comfortable using their culture and their language.”
Premier Francois Legault did not issue a public statement Thursday regarding the Echaquan commission.
Quebec’s Indigenous Affairs Minister, however, published his comments on the commission to Facebook.
“Of course we will wait to see the recommendations that will be made at the end of the [coroner’s] investigation, which will be added to the more than 500 recommendations made by the various reports guiding my ‘I Hope’ plan,” Lafreniere wrote Thursday.
The ‘I Hope’ plan consists of a series of government initiatives and measures to address issues of systemic racism.
Following Echaquan’s death, this included an announcement of mandated cultural sensitivity training for regional health authority personnel working in and around Joliette.
Lafreniere says there will be more announcements made in this vein in the coming weeks.
The first witness to speak Thursday was Martin Pichette, a Quebec provincial police officer who oversaw an investigation into Echaquan’s death.
Pichette said officers spoke to 36 people during their investigation, including family and health-care staff. No file was transferred to prosecutors because nothing criminal was found to have occurred in Echaquan’s death, he said.
Dubé, when finally called to testify Thursday, told the packed courtroom his wife Joyce didn’t deserve to have her life end the way it did.
According to Dubé, Echaquan was an exceptional wife and mother. He said she loved life, family, animals and travelling through the territory of her ancestors.
“She didn’t ask to end her life like that with those people who insulted her, who disparaged her,” Dubé said, adding that getting justice for her would be the best outcome.
Dubé said his wife had health problems, including heart issues and diabetes, and didn’t like going to the hospital in Joliette.
Dubé said although he had never heard any racist comments when he accompanied her, he said it was different when she went alone.
Echaquan was taken to hospital by ambulance with stomach pains on Sept. 26 and had told her husband in a text she had bleeding in her stomach. She died in hospital on Sept. 28, not long after posting the video.
Dubé said he met with hospital officials the day after the death and they told him she had two litres of blood pumped from her stomach and was intubated.
Dubé said he was told Echaquan’s death was natural and there wouldn’t be an autopsy.
The public inquiry hearings continue until June 2nd.
-With files from The Canadian Press.