A picture of Joyce Echaquan is seen during a vigil on Tuesday, September 29, 2020 in front of the hospital where she died in Joliette, Que. Advocates say the fate of Echaquan is a tragic example of the systemic racism many Indigenous people face while accessing health care. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson

Joyce Echaquan’s death highlights systemic racism in health care, experts say

The Atikamekw mother of seven died soon after she filmed herself from her hospital bed

The fate of Joyce Echaquan, an Indigenous woman who died in a Quebec hospital after filming staff insulting her, is a tragic example of the systemic racism many Indigenous people face when accessing health services in Canada, advocates and patients say.

The Atikamekw mother of seven died soon after she filmed herself from her hospital bed last Monday while she was in clear distress and pleading for help. Toward the end of the video, which was streamed live, two female hospital staff enter her room and are heard making degrading comments, including calling her stupid and saying she’d be better off dead.

The video has created widespread indignation, several inquiries and a lawsuit from Echaquan’s family against the hospital where she died in Joliette, Que. But Yvonne Boyer, a Metis Canadian senator, lawyer, and former nurse, says what happened to Echaquan was in no way a surprise.

“For every Joyce Echaquan that comes forward, there’s a hundred that have not been heard,” she said in a phone interview.

Echaquan’s partner, Carol Dube, says he believes she died as a result of the racism she and many other Indigenous people face.

“I’m convinced that my partner is dead because systemic racism contaminated the Joliette hospital. It killed my partner,” he told a news conference Friday at which his lawyer announced a lawsuit and a criminal complaint against the hospital.

Frederick Edwards, a Cree man from Manitoba, said he has faced racism and stereotypes throughout his life while trying to access health care.

He remembers being in unbearable pain before going to an emergency room in Winnipeg about seven years ago, after having already seeing multiple doctors who couldn’t provide a diagnosis. He says he was shocked when the triage nurse immediately told him to shut up and sit down — treatment that made him feel “worthless.”

After being made to wait, then seeing a doctor who dismissed his symptoms, his phone rang as he waited in the ER: a doctor he had seen previously had results of a blood test showing that his health was at serious risk. He was rushed to surgery at another hospital because his gallbladder had ruptured.

“I don’t like hospitals because of so many bad experiences,” Edwards, a communications professional, said in an interview. “This is just one of them.”

READ MORE: Family of Indigenous woman subjected to slurs in Quebec hospital to announce lawsuit

Boyer said discrimination in the health-care system is “pervasive,” spanning every province and territory.

As an example, she cited legal actions being mounted in Alberta, Saskatchewan and British Columbia by Indigenous women who allege they were forced or coerced into undergoing sterilization procedures.

Accounts from Indigenous women in 2015 about forced sterilizations in Saskatchewan led to hundreds more coming forward with similar stories from across the country. A report into the Saskatchewan tubal ligations found the women felt profiled and powerless and concluded racism exists within the health-care system.

Boyer said she received another email from a Canadian Indigenous woman alleging a coerced procedure on Thursday, suggesting such practices are not just a relic of the past.

The issue of health-care discrimination was also raised in the case of Brian Sinclair, a 45-year-old Indigenous man who died of sepsis in 2008 after sitting in a Winnipeg hospital in his wheelchair for 34 hours.

Later it was discovered that staff assumed he was homeless or intoxicated. By the time his body was discovered, rigor mortis had set in. An inquest into the death made recommendations about structural changes to how hospitals conduct triage, but family members have said it didn’t address the real issue – racism in the health-care system.

Mary Jane Logan McCallum, a member of the Munsee Delaware Nation in Ontario and co-author of a book about Sinclair’s death, said racism continues to be a significant barrier to proper health care for Indigenous people. They fear facing stereotypes, having their symptoms ignored or being left to die without treatment.

“This is not a one-off for Indigenous people,” McCallum said in reference to the deaths of Sinclair and Echaquan. “This is absolutely part of the way that many Indigenous people prepare themselves to go to the hospital.”

In Montreal, Nakuset, the executive director of the Native Women’s Shelter, said situations like Echaquan’s are “heartbreakingly normal.”

Over the last 20 years of directing the shelter, she says she’s seen and heard of countless instances of racism, including a Cree patient being told to go to a Mohawk reserve for treatment and an Inuk woman leaving a health-care facility in tears after being rebuffed while seeking treatment for an addiction.

It’s so bad, she said, that the shelter has taken to sending support workers with patients to the hospital, partly to witness and document racist incidents.

Quebec Premier Francois Legault has denounced Echaquan’s treatment as “unacceptable,” and on Saturday, deputy premier Genevieve Guilbault announced that she has asked the coroner’s office to order a public inquest into the death. The two health-care workers heard in the video have been fired. But Legault has consistently maintained there is no systemic racism in the province.

Echaquan’s death took place almost a year to the day after a public inquiry released 142 recommendations aimed at improving Indigenous people’s access to government services in Quebec. Though Quebec’s minister responsible for Indigenous affairs said this week that dozens of those recommendations have been implemented, both Boyer and Nakuset question her claim.

After all the inquests and recommendations, both women feel that little real change has occurred.

“How are you ever supposed to fix (systemic racism) if people believe it doesn’t exist?” Boyer said in reference to Legault.

She said there needs to be a “national response” that sets clear standards for hospitals and clear consequences for those who violate them.

Nakuset, who organized a protest in downtown Montreal on Saturday, is hopeful that what happened to Echaquan could be a turning point for Canada, the way the death of George Floyd during an arrest by police in Minnesota galvanized the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States.

She believes there’s still hope for change, but only if Canadians from all backgrounds demand it.

“The only way that we can make changes as a society is to show up, because actions speak louder than words,” she said.

Morgan Lowrie and Kelly Geraldine Malone, The Canadian Press


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism during the pandemic? Make a donation here.

HealthcareIndigenousRacial injusticeracism

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Among the pumpkin carvings created this year by Rick Chong of Abbotsford is this tribute to fallen officer Cont. Allan Young.
Pumpkin carver features police officer killed in off-duty assault in Nelson

Abbotsford’s Rick Chong carves and displays 30 pumpkins every year

Near the top of Stanley Street in Nelson, a newly installed waterline will soon be joined to an old one that runs into the city from Selous Creek near Ymir, until now used only as emergency backup. The new line will take Selous Creek water to the Mountain Station Reservoir as a more permanent addition to the water supply. Photo: Bill Metcalfe
Completion of Selous Creek line improves Nelson’s water supply

Project adds a new source of treated water

Get some help writing your novel at the Nelson Library online this month. Photo: Marcus Aurelius/Pexels
CHECK THIS OUT: Write that novel!

The Nelson Library can help you during National Novel Writing Month

The bobsled race has traditionally been a staple event at the carnival. File photo
Upcoming Rossland Winter Carnival cancelled due to COVID-19 crisis

This is the first time the carnival won’t be held in decades

Over the years, Janice Blackie-Goodine’s home in Summerland has featured elaborate Halloween displays and decorations each October. (File photo)
QUIZ: How much do you really know about Halloween?

Oct. 31 is a night of frights. How much do you know about Halloween customs and traditions?

FILE - In this Jan. 23, 1987 file photo, actor Sean Connery holds a rose in his hand as he talks about his new movie “The Name of the Rose” at a news conference in London. Scottish actor Sean Connery, considered by many to have been the best James Bond, has died aged 90, according to an announcement from his family. (AP Photo/Gerald Penny, File)
Actor Sean Connery, the ‘original’ James Bond, dies at 90

Oscar-winner was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 2000

Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good

Pay it Forward program supports local businesses in their community giving

This house at 414 Royal Ave. became notorious for its residents’ and visitors’ penchant for attracting police. It was also the site of a gruesome torture in August 2018. It was demolished in 2019. KTW
6-year sentence for Kamloops man who helped carve ‘rat’ into flesh of fellow gang member

Ricky Dennis was one of three men involved in the August 2018 attack

Cpl. Nathan Berze, media officer for the Mission RCMP, giving an update on the investigation at 11:30 a.m., Oct. 30. Patrick Penner photo.
VIDEO: Prisoner convicted of first-degree murder still at large from Mission Institution

When 10 p.m. count was conducted, staff discovered Roderick Muchikekwanape had disappeared

An online fundraising campaign in support of the six-year-old boy, Edgar Colby, who was hit by a car on Range Road Oct. 25 has raised more than $62,000 in a day. (Submitted)
$62K raised in 1 day for boy in coma at BC Children’s after being hit by vehicle in Yukon

The boy’s aunt says the family is “very grateful” for the support they’ve received from the community

The Kimberley Dynamiters' next two exhibition games have been postponed due to an individual testing positive for COVID-19. Paul Rodgers file.
Member of Kimberley Dynamiters tests positive for COVID-19

Exhibition games in Fernie, Creston postponed

Most Read