MONTREAL (CITYNEWS) – The death of an Indigenous woman who was subject to degrading taunts by nursing staff in a Quebec hospital epitomizes the prevalence of racism against Indigenous people in the province, says a prominent social activist.
The death of Joyce Echaquan, a 37-year-old Indigenous mother of seven, in Joliette, Que., on Monday has sparked outrage across the province. Echaquan recorded hospital staff making insulting comments in a video she posted online before her death. One of the nurses has since been fired.
Social activist Nakuset, the executive director of Montreal’s Native Women’s Shelter, says Echaquan’s death – and the video – is just one of many examples of violence and racism toward Indigenous communities.
“Because Joyce filmed it, then it becomes real,” said Nakuset. “But every time one of our residents goes to hospitals, it happens. So unless someone records it and has proof, we’re just complaining. We’re making it up.
“It happens at the hospitals, at addiction centres, at youth protection. And we know what happens with the police. So it is ongoing.”
The Quebec coroner’s office and the regional health authority will investigate the circumstances surrounding the death.
Before her death, Echaquan filmed herself from her hospital bed while she was in clear distress, screaming and pleading for help.
Toward the end of the video, two female hospital staff can be seen entering her room and are heard making insulting comments, saying she’s “stupid as hell,” that she’s only good for sex, better off dead, and that they were “paying for this.”
Amid protests from Echaquan, who was in the hospital complaining of stomach pains, a staff member tells her she made poor choices and asks what her children would think to see her in that state.
“That’s why I came here,” Echaquan can be heard replying quietly.
The video circulated widely on the internet, prompting widespread indignation.
Premier Francois Legault offered his condolences to the family Tuesday in Quebec City. And while he admitted racism exists in the province, he would not qualify the situation as an example of systemic racism.
“What happened is totally unacceptable,” Legault said. “There will be two inquiries and the nurse did something unacceptable and she has been fired.”
Nakuset says Legault’s comments and the dismissal of one nurse – not both – is simply not enough.
“It’s nice that he acknowledges it, but then he takes a step back and says there is no systemic discrimination,” said Nakuset.
“This horrible injustice has happened and is there going to be change or accountability? I know one of the nurses got fired, but what about the other one?
“You know it makes us scared. Let’s say I get hit by a car as I’m walking outside. Do I want to call an ambulance? What have I learned from this experience? Is everyone encouraged not to call an ambulance? What do we do? What is the solution?”
Joyce Echaquan an Indigenous mother of 7 shared a live video Monday as one nurse called her "stupid as hell," mocking her as she moaned in Atikamekw that she was being given too much medication. Why it's sparking outrage + reactions at 6pm! @CityNewsMTL pic.twitter.com/NQ4405kkdP
— Melina Giubilaro (@MelinaCityNews) September 30, 2020
Provincial opposition parties are now calling for Quebec Indigenous Affairs Minister Sylvie D’amours’ resignation. D’amours sent out a statement Wednesday morning commemorating the one-year release of the Viens commission, a report that examined the shortfalls of treatment for Indigenous people in public services.
But while D’amours praised the CAQ government’s ability to complete 51 of the 142 recommendations made in the report, there was no acknowledgement of Echaquan’s death.
Dominique Anglade, the leader of Quebec’s liberal party, called the statement “an insult” on Twitter.
1 an après le dépôt du rapport de la commission Viens et après le triste décès de Joyce Echaquan, le communiqué de @SylvieDAmours est une insulte.
Je demande au premier ministre d'assumer un vrai leadership.
— Dominique Anglade (@DomAnglade) September 30, 2020
D’Amours released another statement later Wednesday offering her condolences to Echaquan’s family.
“This incident demonstrates that racism unfortunately still exists in Quebec, especially against Indigenous communities,” said D’Amours.
Quebec’s chief of the Assembly of First Nations, Ghislain Picard, is calling on the government to address a culture of racism.
“A coroner’s inquest should not be an opportunity for the government to shirk its responsibilities,” Picard said Tuesday. “A coroner’s report will not change anything about the racism displayed by nurses. It is a question of attitude and a question of culture.”
The hashtag ‘Justice for Joyce’ was trending in Quebec on social media on Tuesday while a vigil was held in Joliette. A protest is set to take place Saturday in Montreal.
–with files from Stephanie Marin, The Canadian Press