The death of Joyce Echaquan, an Indigenous mother of seven in Quebec, after suffering what Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller calls “unacceptable, horrible conditions” is sparking outrage across the country and bringing into the spotlight the need to tackle systemic racism in health care.
In Ottawa on Wednesday, members of Parliament gathered in the House of Commons and virtually to mark Orange Shirt Day, created in 2013 to drive awareness about the continuing traumatic legacy of residential schools on Indigenous peoples and communities.
But the tributes came as authorities in Quebec launch three separate investigations into the way nurses and doctors at a Joliette hospital treated Echaquan, 37, when she sought help shortly before her death.
“This is not only an isolated event,” said Miller, calling the treatment part of a “pattern of racism.”
“This is the worst face of racism and every incident of racism needs to be called out. I think what’s gut-wrenching about this is this is someone who is in their most vulnerable and dying.”
Echaquan, a member of the Atikamekw Nation of Manawan, went to the Joliette hospital after experiencing stomach pains and died a few days later. But before her death, she livestreamed a video from her hospital bed which shows hospital staff making derogatory comments about her.
“I think you have trouble taking care of yourself, so we’re going to do it for you,” one of the women in the video said in French.
“Are you done messing around? You’re dumb as hell,” another said.
“You made bad choices, my dear. What do you think your children would think seeing you like this? Think of them,” said the first woman again.
“She’s only good for sex. And we’re paying for this,” added the second woman.
Echaquan’s family says the video was recorded on Monday morning and she died Monday afternoon.
She was the mother of seven children, ranging in age from seven months to the age of 21.
The regional health authority overseeing the hospital, the CISSS de Lanaudière, offered its condolences to Echaquan’s family in a statement to Global News Tuesday afternoon.
“We were informed yesterday at the end of the day of the situation and if what we were told is true, it is unacceptable,” said Hélène Gaboury, CISSS spokesperson.
Lorraine Whitman, president of the Native Women’s Association of Canada, described the “horror” she felt listening to the recording of Echaquan’s pleas for help in a statement Wednesday.
“It was with disgust that we heard a nurse, a woman who was supposed to care for her, utter racial slurs rather than come to her aid,” Whitman said.
“It makes us wonder how many other Indigenous women are being subjected to this sort of abuse in Quebec and elsewhere in Canada but did not have the courage or ability to film their own distress.”
Whitman said while she’s glad Quebec Premier Francois Legault has condemned the actions and that one of the nurses has been fired, she wants to see that government implement the recommendations of the Viens Commission from last year.
She added all levels of government act to ensure such a thing doesn’t happen again, and that includes implementing the calls to action from the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, and from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Both focused concretely on health care as a key way to combat longstanding inequities and racism.
“Only when governments recognize the harms that are being perpetrated against Indigenous people, take steps to correct them, and make the necessary reparations, will repugnant incidents like the one endured by Joyce Echaquan be prevented,” Whitman said.
Cindy Blackstock, executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, also echoed the concerns that the recommendations from work like the Viens Commission haven’t been fully implemented.
“It’s just heartbreaking and the reason it’s so heartbreaking is there’s been so many solutions already on the books to prevent such tragedies,” she said, stressing the need to take concrete actions to combat systemic racism in health care.
She pointed to the fact this has happened before, notably in the case of Brian Sinclair more than a decade ago when he was ignored and later died in a Winnipeg hospital.
“This is far from a one-off unfortunately.”
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission made 94 concrete calls to action for all levels of government and many of those are aimed at addressing the gaps in health care faced by Indigenous peoples.
It urged medical and nursing schools to require students to take a course on Indigenous health, and for all levels of government to close the health care gaps through measures such as increasing the number of Indigenous people in the health care field and using Indigenous healing practices.
The calls to action also stressed the need to address the discrepancies in access to health care on- and off-reserve, and for the federal government to publish annual reports on Indigenous health in areas like infant mortality, maternal health, suicide, mental health, addictions, life expectancy and others.
The National Inquiry on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls was one of those calls to action that the government has met, and yielded 231 calls to action of its own.
The need to continue working towards meeting the calls to action and the circumstances of Echaquan’s death were key focuses of question period in the House of Commons on Wednesday afternoon, with the MP representing the riding where she died calling for justice.
In a statement made just prior to question period, Bloc Quebecois Joliette MP Gabriel Ste-Marie described feeling “full of sadness, but of rage as well.”
“She passed away in troubling circumstances. We need a true independent investigation with real answers,” Ste-Marie said in his statement to the House of Commons.
“It doesn’t stop here. From nation to nation, things have to chance. Justice has to be served and the system has to change.”
Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole used his first question period since winning the party leadership to ask why the government hasn’t yet fulfilled its commitments to implement the calls to action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, while sporting an orange striped tie.
“Indigenous communities need the prime minister to start to work. Why no action in regards to health from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission?” he asked in French.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said there is an “awful lot” of action needed to implement each call and that the government just recently tabled a bill to fulfill a call to action by making Sept. 30 a holiday marking the importance of reconciliation.
He also said he hopes the government can count on Conservative support when it tables legislation to implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, another call to action, which the government said in the throne speech it will do before the end of this year.
The throne speech also included a pledge to work on new legislation to improve Indigenous health and to keep working to implement more calls to action.
Trudeau also offered condolence to Echaquan’s family in response to a question from NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, who stressed that “systemic racism is denying people of dignity.”
“All Canadians were shocked to see that video,” Trudeau said in French.
“It was the worst form of racism when she needed the most help. This is yet another example of systemic racism. It is quite simply unacceptable in Canada.”
Both Trudeau and Singh stressed the need for a full investigation and said there remains work to do on combatting systemic racism.
“We will do out utmost to eliminate racism where it exists,” Trudeau said.
— With files from Global Montreal’s Annabelle Olivier.