Joyce Echaquan died, disgracefully, in a hospital in Joliette, Que., at the end of September.
The footage of the Atikamekw mother calling for help in her bed as two nurses berated her with racist remarks was infuriating and heartbreaking to see, appearing constantly on news clips and social media feeds.
Then last week, in a courthouse a province away, an Ontario court made a quieter but landmark ruling on a case that served as its own reminder of what Ms. Echaquan’s death and mistreatment proved: Indigenous people face racism every day, even when they’re just trying to access basic services.
On Oct. 2, Ontario Justice David Gibson found that the Charter rights of six women from Pikangikum First Nation, who had been convicted of impaired driving, had been violated in their sentencing. He declared it to be “financially and logistically prohibitive” for them to travel from the fly-in community where they lived to the nearest jail in Kenora, Ont., located 200 kilometres away, to serve their intermittent sentences every weekend. The overcrowded correctional facility, he said, had “grotesque similarities” to residential schools.
Justice Gibson’s decision bypassed the logistics of how exactly the six women should or could serve their sentences; that issue has been kicked down to a future hearing. Instead, he lambasted Canada’s legacy of abandoning treaties and enforcing colonization even to this day – how First Nations people do not receive equal treatment under Canada’s law, and how Canada has failed to live up to the nation-building promised under the terms of Pikangikum’s Treaty 5.
We know these truths. Canada’s governments and institutions – hospitals, schools, policing, laws and social services – weren’t created with serving Indigenous people in mind. They were designed to fail us.
These truths were found at the heart of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls final report, delivered last summer. The inquiry’s commissioners found that “persistent and deliberate human and Indigenous rights violations and abuses” are the genocidal roots of the violence against our women and girls.
We see these abuses repeated every day.
We see the effects of structural violence etched on Ms. Echaquan’s face, sideways on the screen, contorted and crying out for someone to help her, as she lay on a hospital bed, the target of racist attacks.
We saw this play out last year, when Craig Neekan, a 21-year-old Mishkeegogamang student, tried to access urgent mental-health care at a Thunder Bay hospital; instead of being offered help, he was escorted out by security staff. Craig was later found, hanging, across the street.
I saw this play out with Craig’s own father, Troy Neekan, just this summer. He was overcome with grief and in the process of pursuing legal action against the hospital when he took his own life at the end of August. The trauma just continues to cascade down.
How much more proof does Canada need to see in order to understand that its institutions treat Indigenous people as “second-class citizens," as Justice Gibson found? ”The Government is not fulfilling its treaty obligations and young Indigenous people are taking their lives in shocking numbers," he wrote. "This is happening right now and not because of things that happened in the distant past but because of things that are being done and not being done as I am reading this judgement.”
How many more times do we need to point out that Canada needs to stop treating Indigenous people as the ones who are deficient, the ones with “the problem”? Where are the circles of care that build people up, instead of tearing them down?
Canada must follow the national inquiry’s 231 Calls for Justice. It must not shy away from its treaty responsibilities because this country fails to come to an agreement on what constitutes systemic discrimination.
Earlier this week, the Ontario Native Women’s Association (ONWA) held a press conference, releasing their report on how Ottawa should go about implementing the Calls to Justice. On that call, I asked Health Minister Patty Hajdu where the national action plan was, and she said Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg First Nation’s Gina Wilson, Canada’s deputy minister of community safety, would be co-chairing the plan’s working group. A government official later followed up that Valerie Royle, deputy minister of Yukon’s women’s directorate, will also co-chair the core working group. They are now turning to the provinces to put working groups together.
This is the language of delay. The plan must be expedited. We must bring down the structures that have failed us for decades.
Ms. Echaquan’s death was not an isolated incident, said ONWA executive director Cora McGuire-Cyrette. She was targeted because of her race and gender.
We must never forget that.
Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.