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Women hold up red dresses to raise awareness to the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous woman as they attend a rally for Joyce Echaquan, an indigenous woman died at a hospital in Joliette, Quebec on Oct. 3, 2020.

CHRISTINNE MUSCHI/Reuters

The chief commissioner of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls says the verbally abusive way in which Joyce Echaquan was treated at a Quebec hospital before her death is a “grim reminder” of the failings of health care services in Canada.

In an interview with The Globe and Mail on Tuesday, Marion Buller said the three-year national inquiry heard about Indigenous women, girls and trans people not receiving health care services they are entitled to and about the challenges they faced when accessing care, particularly in remote areas. This deterred some patients from seeking care all together and resulted in untreated health issues.

“I am very sorry for the Echaquan family and what they’ve had to endure,” she said. “But it is not the first time.”

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On Sept. 28, Ms. Echaquan, a member of the Atikamekw Nation, was seeking medical help at a hospital in Joliette, about 70 kilometres northeast of Montreal, when she went live on Facebook and recorded the racist taunts she endured in the last moments of her life. It showed the 37-year-old mother of seven screaming in pain while two health care workers were in the room, including one who told her in French, “You’re stupid as hell.”

The shocking video has prompted calls for change – including from the Quebec government and the federal government – in confronting systemic racism in health care.

Ms. Buller said Tuesday the MMIWG inquiry heard consistent concerns from coast-to-coast-to-coast, including what she called truths about systemic racism in health facilities, whether they were located in rural, suburban or urban areas.

“It was a consistent theme all across Canada,” she said, adding that the inquiry raised issues in health care across the country that must be remedied.

Included in the inquiry’s final report in June, 2019, were calls that governments provide “adequate, stable, equitable, and ongoing funding for Indigenous-centred and community-based health and wellness services that are accessible and culturally appropriate” and meet the health and wellness needs of Indigenous women, girls and gender diverse people.

Ms. Buller, a member of the Mistawasis First Nation in Saskatchewan and the first Indigenous woman appointed as a provincial court judge in British Columbia, said there is “certainly a role for the federal government to play.”

But she said it also raises jurisdictional issues.

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“Indigenous people living off reserve, say in an urban setting, fall under provincial health care jurisdiction," she said. “For on-reserve health care, it is the federal government. So there are two, often conflicting, jurisdictions. That leads to gaps in health care and we raised that in our report.”

Last week, federal Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller said an urgent meeting will be held on systemic racism in health care while he pointed to the mistreatment and death of Ms. Echaquan.

A spokesperson for Mr. Miller said Tuesday the meeting will be held virtually on Friday and invitations have been sent to First Nations, Inuit and Métis leadership and partners, key health stakeholders and provincial and territorial representatives.

An invitation has also been extended to Ms. Echaquan’s family, said press secretary Adrienne Vaupshas.

The meeting will focus on honouring the lived experiences of Indigenous peoples of systemic racism in federal, provincial and territorial health systems, Ms. Vaupshas said. She said those attending will look at short-term measures that governments, educational institutions, health professional associations, regulatory colleges and accreditation organizations can take.

Ottawa is seeking a commitment for a second gathering in January, 2021, where proposed and implemented measures will be presented by governments and health care organizations as part of efforts to reach an agreement on a national plan, she said.

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The focus now is on all levels of government to make sure there is appropriate health care for Indigenous people and to address systemic racism in a meaningful way, Ms. Buller said.

“The emphasis is on governments now to clean this up,” she said.

“Let’s look at Brian Sinclair [a member of Sagkeeng First Nation who died awaiting care in Winnipeg in] 2008. Joyce Echaquan, 2020. The reports of systemic racism ongoing in British Columbia [now the subject of investigation]. It is a tragedy.”


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