Quebec premier François Legault promised to apologize to the family of Joyce Echaquan, who was taunted with racial slurs by health-care staff as she lay dying in a Joliette hospital.
“We’ll find the right way to do it,” Legault said, reiterating that Echaquan’s treatment was “unacceptable and embarrassing.”
Legault made the comments during a press conference on the novel coronavirus Monday afternoon.
Earlier in the day, the premier met with Atikamekw leaders alongside Sylvie D’Amours, the minister for Indigenous affairs to discuss how to ensure similar incidents don’t happen again.
The death one week ago of Echaquan, a 37-year-old mother of seven from the Atikamekw Nation of Manawan, has sparked condemnation and raised questions about how Indigenous people are treated and cared for in Quebec’s health network.
As she writhed in pain and pleaded for help, Echaquan took a live video on Facebook while she was the subject of discriminatory remarks from staff at the Joliette hospital. In the video, staffers can be heard telling Echaquan she was stupid and saying she would be better off dead.
The treatment of Echaquan also led to protests over the weekend, where demonstrators expressed support for Echaquan’s family and voiced concerns about systemic racism in the health-care system.
Legault, for his part, has acknowledged there is racism against Indigenous people in Quebec — but has repeatedly stopped short of defining it as systemic.
Atikamekw Grand Chief Constant Awashish said the issue was discussed during the meeting.
“That’s why we wanted to speak to the government to clarify his positon surrounding racism here and especially in Joliette,” Awashish said.
“Of course we had a debate about it and we didn’t agree on the definition but I think we speak the same language — just differently,” he said. “We agree there is a systemic problem in public services.”
Awashish said the premier agreed to take a close look at the Joliette hospital and promised to act quickly.
The next step is to wait and see if there will be any follow through.
“I am waiting for action,” he said. “(Legault) could bring very positive change, he has the power to do it but now we’re looking for the will.”
Ghislain Picard, chief of the Assembly of First Nations of Quebec-Labrador, attended the meetings as an observer, and pointed to how the Atikamekw leadership outlined the importance of re-establishing trust in the system.
Picard explained how many Indigenous people normalize their bad experiences because it’s what they expect.
“They expect to be treated differently than others in Quebec,” he said. “That needs to change.”
Paule-Emile Ottawa, council chief for the Atikamekw of Manawan, said they’re pushing for various initiatives to make sure health-care professionals receive sensitivity training to better deal with First Nations patients.
Ottawa said they would also like to see mandatory internships in Indigenous communities for future doctors and nurses.
Legault agreed that employees need more training, but said it shouldn’t be limited to just hospitals.
There are also plans in the works to launch an awareness campaign to “make sure that people who are racist in Quebec, change their approach,” he added.
Legault called the meeting with the chiefs “productive” and promised to meet with community leaders on a weekly basis.
“We’ll take action and change the situation and that is what is important,” the premier concluded.
In the last week, two staff members have been fired and several investigations have been launched into the circumstances surrounding Echaquan’s death.
Her family has also announced a lawsuit against the Joliette hospital, along with filing complaints with the province’s human rights commission and with the police.
On Sunday, the Quebec coroner’s office announced it will oversee a public inquest into her death following a request from the government. Pascale Descary did not provide dates but pledged to launch the probe soon.
— With files from The Canadian Press and Global’s Phil Carpenter