The death of an Indigenous woman who was subjected to bigoted taunts while being treated in a Quebec hospital last year is evidence of the province’s systemic racism, the coroner who led the inquest into the case said in a report released Friday.
The provincial government should acknowledge the existence of systemic racism in Quebec society and work to eliminate it, the report concludes. The finding comes amid a heated political debate over whether the concept applies to Quebec. Opposition parties and Indigenous leaders have called on a reluctant Premier to act.
The death of Joyce Echaquan, a 37-year-old Atikamekw mother of seven, prompted the coroner’s inquest. Ms. Echaquan filmed herself being mocked by nurses in a hospital in Joliette, Que., last September while she thrashed in pain and screamed for help. The footage, which Ms. Echaquan livestreamed on social media shortly before she died, shocked many Quebeckers and prompted a national conversation about the treatment of Indigenous people in health care.
In the report, published months after emotional public hearings in the spring, coroner Géhane Kamel concluded the death was accidental, the result of a pulmonary edema connected to a heart condition, but that “the racism and prejudices that Ms. Echaquan faced certainly contributed to her death.”
Notably, the report found that health workers suspected without evidence that she was suffering from drug withdrawal. The “prejudice” that Ms. Echaquan was dependent on narcotics kept hospital staff from taking her calls for help seriously and “would guide the actions of care workers until her death,” Ms. Kamel wrote.
In a week of sharp public debate about the treatment of Indigenous people in Quebec, Premier François Legault has been criticized for an insensitive response to calls for recognition and justice.
On Tuesday, the anniversary of Ms. Echaquan’s death, Mr. Legault again refused to acknowledge systemic racism in Quebec, despite demands from the provincial Liberal Party and leftist Québec Solidaire. The Premier has long maintained that racism exists in Quebec, but has rejected the label “systemic.” During a debate in the National Assembly the next day, he accused the opposition parties of making political use of the tragedy.
Mr. Legault came in for more criticism on Thursday, when he said Quebec would not create a holiday next year to mark the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation because it would harm “productivity” and be too “costly.”
The coroner’s report on Friday renewed calls from the opposition parties for an official government acknowledgment of systemic racism in Quebec. The Legault government did not officially respond to the report on Friday, but Éric Caire, the minister responsible for digitizing government, said at an unrelated news conference that he didn’t agree with the conclusion.
Ms. Kamel was an outspoken presence at the inquest’s public hearings in May, showing sympathy for the Echaquan family and occasionally expressing general political views. In her opening statement, the coroner spoke of the value of diversity in Quebec – “I am deeply convinced that we must learn to live together and to welcome differences as a collective wealth,” she said – and later took the rare step of descending from her bench to console Ms. Echaquan’s husband of 23 years, Carol Dubé, as he testified.
Ms. Kemal’s final report also contained alarming detail about Ms. Echequan’s care between entering hospital on the night of Sept. 26 last year and her death less than 48 hours later. It depicts nurses, doctors, and orderlies showing a lack of “empathy” for a woman they tagged as a “difficult patient.“
When she fell from her hospital bed, a care worker reportedly said, “She threw herself on the ground, you know.“ In the final minutes of Ms. Echaquan’s life, she was left with an inexperienced nurse-in-training who called repeatedly for help. Closer surveillance would have got her to intensive care more quickly when she needed it most, Ms. Kamel concluded.
One witness testified that Ms. Echaquan’s care workers expressed relief after her death. “Indians, they like to complain over nothing, screw around and have kids,“ one of them reportedly said. “Then it’s us who pays. Finally, she’s dead.“
With a report from The Canadian Press
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