Premier François Legault extended his apologies to the family of Joyce Echaquan, who was berated and subjected to racial slurs by health-care staff as she lay dying in a Joliette hospital last week.
Members of the national assembly also observed a minute of silence to honour Echaquan’s life.
Legault said Echaquan died in horrible circumstances and admitted the public service had failed her.
“The state has a duty to offer the same dignity, the same respect to everyone regardless of their origin, regardless of their gender, regardless of the colour of their skin,” he said.
“On behalf of the Quebec government, I would like to offer my apologies to the family, loved ones and Joyce Echaquan’s community.”
The apology comes after Legault and Indigenous Affairs Minister Sylvie D’Amours met with Atikamekw chiefs on Monday to discuss ways of ensuring similar incidents don’t happen again.
Echaquan, a 37-year-old mother of seven from the Atikamekw Nation of Manawan, posted a live video on Facebook shortly before her death.
In the video, Echaquan, who is clearly in distress, pleads for help while hospital employees can be heard telling her she is stupid and would be better off dead.
“The video of her last moments is difficult to stomach,” Legault said. “There’s suffering in her pleas and then there’s all the hate, the racism in the voices of the employees at her side.”
“As a Quebecer, it hurts to hear. It hurts to know that something like this can happen here, at home.”
Echaquan’s treatment has drawn widespread condemnation and raised questions about how Indigenous people are treated and cared for in Quebec’s health network.
In his apology, Legault also admitted that the Echaquan’s treatment wasn’t an isolated incident.
“There continues to be many other racist incidents against Indigenous people in Quebec, and it’s not a coincidence,” he said. “For decades, Indigenous Peoples have been the object of discrimination by the different levels of government.”
He pointed to the federal Indian Act as an example of such discrimination, saying it was once labelled “La loi des Sauvages.”
“Things have changed, but it has left deep wounds,” Legault said.
The premier acknowledged Indigenous people face discrimination not only while accessing government services, but also when it comes to employment opportunities and housing.
“I know an apology wouldn’t erase what happened in Joliette but I hope it will bring a bit of comfort to her family,” Legault said, reiterating his commitment to fight racism.
He said he was hopeful Echaquan’s death would serve as a turning point and be remembered as the moment where “we collectively took action.”
Following Monday’s meeting, Grand Chief Constant Awashish expressed belief in Legault’s ability to bring about positive change but remained cautious in his optimism.
“I am waiting for action,” he said.
Legault said Monday that he hopes to launch an awareness campaign aimed at changing the approach of people exhibiting racist behaviours.
He also agreed to weekly meetings with Atikamekw leaders.
“We’ll take action and change the situation and that is what is important,” Legault said.
Other solutions discussed during Monday’s meeting included sensitivity training for health-care professionals and mandatory internships in First Nations communities for future doctors and nurses.
In the last week, two staff members, a nurse and an orderly, have been fired and several investigations have been launched into the circumstances surrounding Echaquan’s death.
Echaquan’s family is suing the Joliette hospital and has filed a complaint against the Quebec order of nurses to have the nurse’s licence revoked.
In the meantime, while she was fired from one hospital, she could technically find work in another health facility.
When pressed about how he felt about the possibility of her working elsewhere, Quebec Health Minister Christian Dubé deferred to the coroner’s office, which is overseeing a public inquest into Echaquan’s death.
“I prefer knowing the facts and seeing exactly what happened and if there’s a decision to be made I am certain the (health authority) will make the right one.”
A private funeral was held for Echaquan in Manawan on Tuesday afternoon.
— With files from Global’s Kalina Laframboise