Chiefs of the Atikamekw Nation say they will insist on results after an hour-long meeting with the Quebec Premier over the death of Joyce Echaquan, the Indigenous woman who died last week in a Quebec hospital after recording a barrage of verbal abuse by staff members.
The chiefs emerged from the hour-long meeting in Premier François Legault’s Montreal office with a conciliatory tone, saying it was a positive encounter full of promises to address long-standing issues at the Joliette hospital and to attack racism more generally.
“But get back to me in a year and I might have a better answer” about results, said Chief Paul-Émile Ottawa of the Atikamekw Nation of Manawan. “Joyce Echaquan’s death is a reminder of the gulf that remains between us.”
The chiefs also asked the Premier for an apology. Mr. Legault said he is ready to make a formal apology for her treatment and will find the appropriate way in coming days.
Ms. Echaquan, a 37-year-old mother of seven, died at the hospital in Joliette last week. Before her death, she posted a seven-minute Facebook video that showed her writhing and crying out in pain while two health care workers called her stupid and made lewd comments. The province fired a nurse and an orderly. Indigenous women and Canadians across the country held vigils for her Sunday.
After the meeting, Mr. Legault said he committed to specifically addressing complaints of racism and mistreatment at the hospital. He also agreed the government will introduce training on Indigenous culture for doctors and nurses. The Atikamekw chiefs said they also asked the Premier to help ensure they have a place in the public inquiry ordered by the Quebec coroner’s office on Saturday into Ms. Echaquan’s death.
“She didn’t die in a prison or the metro. She died in a hospital, where one should be able to expect lifesaving measures. That’s part of what makes this so dramatic,” Mr. Ottawa said.
Mr. Legault repeated a promise to act quickly and invoked his Algonquin great-great-great-grandmother as an example of the links many Quebeckers have to Indigenous people. “Quebeckers can make a renewed effort to sensitize people who are racist that we are all equal,” he said.
Ghislain Picard, Chief of the Assembly of First Nations Quebec-Labrador, attended the meeting after calling off a previous encounter with the Premier on Friday because the other chiefs were not on the guest list. He said he was “extremely encouraged” by the meeting Monday.
Ms. Echaquan’s death also triggered a new round of debate over systemic racism in Quebec, where many political leaders, including the Premier, deny its existence. The Indigenous leaders who met with Mr. Legault on Monday said he has learning to do.
“I don’t know if he understands everything, but he was listening,” said Constant Awashish, Grand Chief of the Atikamekw Nation. “There is a willingness to act. Will that become a willingness to call things what they are? That might be for another day.”
At a news conference in Ottawa, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Monday that his government has been very clear systemic racism exists.
“It’s a problem, right across the country, in all of our institutions,” Mr. Trudeau said. “We all must do more to address it, to respond to it, to counter it and to make sure every Canadian is treated properly … by all of our institutions.”
Mr. Trudeau said he will continue to work with the provinces and territories on the matter, as well as at the federal level. No Canadian should face what far too many racialized or Indigenous Canadians live through on a daily basis, he added.
With a report from Kristy Kirkup in Ottawa
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