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It should have been a moment for reflection. Instead, it descended into a debate about semantics.

On Friday, a coroner released the much-anticipated report into the case of an Indigenous woman who, just two hours before she died in a Quebec hospital in 2020, posted a live Facebook video of a nurse and an orderly making racist comments to her.

The coroner has ruled that the racial prejudices on display in the video directly contributed to the death of Joyce Echaquan, a mother of seven from the Atikamekw Nation. It’s an extraordinary charge to make, but the coroner found that the evidence could only lead to that conclusion.

Ms. Echaquan was admitted to Centre hospitalier de Lanaudière in Joliette, Que., late on Sept. 26, 2020, with stomach pains. She was kept overnight for observation.

The next morning, she showed signs of agitation. Hospital staff assumed, without evidence, that this was caused by cannabis and opioid withdrawal.

In fact, the agitation was unrelated to substance withdrawal; the only drugs in Ms. Echaquan’s system were those prescribed by doctors, and were at levels associated with therapeutic use.

But as a consequence of this false diagnosis – which her caregivers jumped to because she was a First Nations woman – her condition was repeatedly misinterpreted and mistreated. A doctor prescribed drugs to calm her down, and ordered the use of bed restraints if they didn’t work.

The infamous video was shot the morning of Sept. 28, 2020, after Ms. Echaquan had fallen out of bed. The nurse and orderly who put her back into bed are heard calling her stupid and telling her that the only thing Indigenous women were good for was sex. They restrained her limbs, put another restraint across her abdomen and left her in the care of a nurse trainee, without attaching her to a heart monitor.

But Ms. Echaquan wasn’t suffering from substance withdrawal. She had a history of heart disease, and she was having a heart attack.

If she was agitated, it was likely because her lungs were filling with fluid and she was slowly drowning – a situation worsened by the fact she had been strapped down on her back. Within an hour of recording her video, her vital signs were weak. An hour later, she was dead. Cause of death: pulmonary edema brought on by cardiogenic shock.

It is safe to say that, had Ms. Echaquan not been Indigenous, hospital staff would have been far less likely to jump to the conclusion that she was undergoing drug withdrawal, and far more likely to have treated her as something other than a nuisance.

Instead, she was dehumanized by staff at a hospital that members of the Atikamekw Nation had complained about before, during 2018 hearings into the treatment of Indigenous people in Quebec institutions that found that discrimination was widespread.

The coroner bluntly said Ms. Echaquan’s “ostracization” was a result of “systemic racism.” And that’s when things went downhill.

Quebec Premier François Legault has repeatedly rejected the idea that systemic racism, whatever its definition, exists in his province. So last week he spent the anniversary of Ms. Echaquan’s death, on Sept. 28, and then again on the day the coroner’s report was released, arguing that point.

On Monday, Mr. Legault apologized. He said he should have shown more compassion during a sombre week and not gotten into acrimonious debates about word choices.

The fact is, no one should – on either side of the debate.

Quebec’s Premier calls the problem “racism,” and decries it; his political foes say he must call it “systemic racism,” or he is failing to decry it.

Is a debate over labels really what’s needed? Ms. Echaquan’s death is a reminder of how prejudice in public institutions can dehumanize Indigenous people. And it’s not just Quebec. Last week in British Columbia, the government launched an anti-discrimination task force that arose out of an ugly situation in 2020, when B.C. health care workers were alleged to have been betting on the alcohol levels of Indigenous patients.

It is self-evident that Canada’s history includes abuses against Indigenous people that are born of racism. Let’s drop the semantics and instead find the compassion that was so tragically lacking at the end of Joyce Echaquan’s life, and make things right.

Editor’s note: This editorial has been updated to clarify that it was allegations that B.C. health works were betting on the alcohol levels of Indigenous patients. An investigation found no evidence to substantiate the allegation of an organized game, but instead found anecdotal and episodic evidence of multiple activities in the health care system that resemble these allegations.

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