Two Quebec nurses fired after investigation into racist behavior against Atikamekw woman

Racist comments allegedly made by staff at clinic in Joliette, close to hospital where Joyce Echaquan died.

The regional health authority overseeing a public clinic in Joliette, Que., says two nurses have been fired after allegations of “unacceptable” racist behavior surfaced over the weekend.

“The comments made by the two dismissed employees represent a breach of the nursing code of ethics, [and] the code of ethics of our organization,” Caroline Barbir, interim president and CEO of the CISSS de Lanaudiere, said in a written statement Tuesday evening.

“The CISSS de Lanaudiere has a zero-tolerance policy towards racist, discriminatory, and intimidating behaviour, and I want this message to be heard loudly,” Barbir added.

According to Barbir, a “confidential” internal investigation is underway, and no media interviews will be given until it concludes.

The latest incident occurred around 1 p.m. on Friday, March 12, according to a Facebook post made by Assembly of First Nations Quebec and Labrador Regional Chief Ghislain Picard.

According to Picard, a woman from Manawan – the same community as Joyce Echaquan – faced “intimidation, mockery, and harassment” when seeking care at the CLSC Joliette, an outpatient clinic.

“You would think [Joliette] would have learned from their lessons on how they treat Indigenous peoples!” Picard posted on Sunday evening.

“The staff from this clinic saw her name and told her ‘I think we’ll just call you Joyce,’” Picard alleged.

APTN News was unable to reach Picard for an interview before press time.

The relationship between Quebec’s health services and First Nations – particularly the Atikamekw Nation – was thrust into the public spotlight last September following the death of Joyce Echaquan, a 37-year-old mother of seven who died shortly after livestreaming racist comments made by staffers at Joliette hospital, located an hour northeast of Montreal.

Manawan’s Deputy Chief Sipi Flamand says this recent case is further evidence of the province’s issue with “systemic racism” – which became a hot-button concept in the months following Echaquan’s death.

“It’s unacceptable to make degrading comments like that towards Indigenous patients,” Flamand said in an interview with APTN. 

“It’s racism, it’s systemic discrimination – pure and simple.”

Joliette’s health authority also confirmed the two fired nurses had previously participated in a sensitivity and “cultural safety” training conference – part of a series of measures put in place after Echaquan’s death.

According to Quebec’s Indigenous Affairs ministry, more mandated cultural sensitivity, or “cultural security,” workshops will be rolled out in Joliette in the coming weeks.

A ministry spokesperson said they were aware of the recent allegations, calling them “simply unacceptable.

“Minister Ian Lafreniere, as well as the interim CEO of the CISSS de Lanaudiere, Caroline Barbir, contacted Chief [Paul-Emile] Ottawa to inform him of the steps taken,” spokesperson Mathieu Durocher said in an emailed statement.

“This shocking event only serves as a reminder of the importance of the concrete measures announced regarding cultural security, so we can offer the Atikamekw community of Manawan equitable access to health care, free of discrimination, at the CISSS de Lanaudiere,” the statement reads.

Quebec, however, has long-struggled to qualify its racism issue as “systemic,” despite Manawan’s urging.

A tailor-made health care proposal – named “Joyce’s Principle” in memory of Echaquan – was rejected by Quebec’s National Assembly in late November over use of the term “systemic racism.”

Last week, to mark the occasion of International Women’s Day, the community brought forward a series of five complaints at the United Nations regarding the province’s dismissal of “Joyce’s Principle.”

In response to the move, Flamand says Quebec reiterated their commitment to taking “concrete actions” without directly acknowledging the government’s role in perpetuating systemic racism.

“It’s not realistic – the confidence isn’t there. And community members don’t have confidence in the health system,” Flamand explained. “I think Quebec is obliged to consider – or reconsider – what we presented in ‘Joyce’s Principle.’”

“Quebec’s health care system is faulty when it comes to cultural minorities,” he said.

In a statement issued Tuesday before news of the firings, the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC) said it was pleased to hear the nurses had been suspended and the health authority was looking into the incident despite the absence of a formal complaint.

“We know this sort of thing goes on,” NWAC President Lorraine Whitman said via written statement.

“Still, it is shocking that healthcare professionals would behave in such a blatantly and openly racist manner so soon after the condemnations that followed the release of [Joyce’s] video.”

According to NWAC, Indigenous people regularly have negative experiences in health-care settings, which it says has contributed to worse health outcomes for Indigenous people in Canada.

“Indigenous patents regularly experience abusive treatment, negative stereotyping, substandard care, and an overall sense of feeling unwelcome within healthcare settings. As a result, we are reluctant to seek treatment, even when we know it is necessary.” Whitman said. “In practice, this means Indigenous people have significantly worse health outcomes than non-Indigenous people.”

“This is just plain wrong in a wealthy and progressive country like Canada,” she added.

With files from The Canadian Press

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