The bereaved widower of Joyce Echaquan, the Indigenous woman verbally abused by Quebec hospital staff as she lay dying, made a distress call for justice on Friday, asking his country’s leaders to recognize systemic racism and do something about it.
Carol Dubé, Ms. Echaquan’s husband, spoke through tears while one of her sons wrapped his arms around his shoulders: “I am here to claim justice, for my wife and for her seven children who will never see her again. They are the ones who have lost the most in this senseless death.
“I am convinced my wife died because systemic racism contaminated the Joliette hospital. She spent her final days in agony, surrounded by people who held her in contempt, people who were supposed to protect her.”
Mr. Dubé was flanked by the chief of his home community of Atikamekw nation of Manawan, Paul-Émile Ottawa, and lawyer Jean-François Bertrand. Together they promised a fight on multiple fronts, from the federal capital to the Quebec National Assembly and the province’s courts and tribunals to find out what happened in Ms. Echaquan’s final hours.
“I ask my Chief and the Premier — my Premier — to ensure our institutions guarantee equal care to everyone,” Mr. Dubé said.
Ms. Echaquan, 37, posted a seven-minute Facebook video early this week from her hospital bed that showed her screaming in pain while two health care workers called her stupid and made lewd comments that Mr. Dubé described as “denigrating and violent.”
She had sought treatment for stomach pain and died on Monday. A nurse and an orderly, who have not been identified, were fired a few days later.
Mr. Bertrand said he is preparing a civil suit, a complaint to Quebec human rights tribunal, a police complaint, and a request for intervenor status if a coroner’s inquiry is held, all aimed at shedding light on what happened and provoking change. He also called on the government to order a public inquiry because of long-standing accounts of racist treatment at the Joliette hospital, about 70 kilometres northeast of Montreal.
One year ago, an inquiry led by Quebec Superior Court Justice Jacques Viens produced a report on the treatment of Indigenous people that concluded it is “impossible to deny” they face systemic racism in Quebec. Several people of the Atikamekw nation of Manawan testified at the inquiry about dismissive treatment, racist slurs, intolerance for their language and interpreters at the Joliette hospital.
Senator Murray Sinclair, who was the chief commissioner of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission on Canada’s residential school legacy, told The Globe on Friday that systemic racism is a national problem.
Mr. Sinclair pointed to the example of Brian Sinclair, who died in 2008 at the age of 45 in a Winnipeg waiting room 34 hours after seeking medical treatment. Other recent examples include the coerced sterilization of Indigenous women on the Prairies and staff at a B.C. hospital making a game of guessing the blood-alcohol level of Indigenous patients. The case in B.C. triggered a provincial inquiry into systemic racism.
Mr. Dubé's call for justice and recognition of systemic racism capped a day of tension between Indigenous leaders and Quebec Premier François Legault.
Ghislain Picard, Chief of the Assembly of First Nations Quebec-Labrador, called off a scheduled meeting of chiefs and the Premier on Friday morning after they could not sort out the terms.
Mr. Legault responded by saying he did not know “what game Mr. Picard is playing.” The Premier said he is planning several measures to combat racism and improve the lives of Indigenous people. “We need someone to sit across the table and work with us,” he said.
Fallout from Ms. Echaquan’s death has also exposed a deep divide over defining discrimination against Indigenous people in Canada’s institutions. Mr. Legault was asked on Friday whether Indigenous people face systemic racism.
“When we talk about systemic racism, for me it’s in relation to Black people in the United States, for reasons we know. For me, I don’t see that in Quebec," Mr. Legault said. But, he added, First Nations people do face racism in Quebec. "I want to fight it, take action.”
Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde said on Friday "systemic racism is real and needs to be acknowledged by everyone, including the Premier of Quebec.” Mr. Legault needs to work with First Nations to fully implement all the recommendations of the Viens Commission, Mr. Bellegarde added.
Mr. Sinclair said the Premier’s denial of the existence of systemic racism shows he may not understand what it is.
The senator said rot at the Joliette hospital likely extends beyond the two fired staffers. People in supervisory roles must know these types of incidents were taking place, he said, noting the complaints about the hospital.
“It’s not just the individuals who mistreated that young mother,” he said. “It’s also the supervisors of those individuals and it’s the policy administrations within the hospital that have to be held to account for what they’ve done.”
Mr. Sinclair said the federal government is “really dropping the ball here by refusing to be the one to intervene and to show some leadership.” He noted the government does not make addressing systemic racism and bias a condition for receiving transfer payments to provinces. “The federal government has a considerable economic club here that they are refusing to use to assist people of colour, the most vulnerable people in Canada, to be treated more humanely.”
Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett said on Friday that Ms. Echaquan’s treatment was evidence of a systemic problem that exists coast-to-coast-to-coast. The federal government intends to table legislation on First Nations, Métis and Inuit health, she said, noting she hopes the bill will impose expectations around culturally safe and trauma-informed care.
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