Atikamekw Nation Grand Chief claims Joyce Echaquan’s family, community want more than apology

Click to play video: 'Calling out problem of racism at Joliette Hospital'
Calling out problem of racism at Joliette Hospital
WATCH: A week after the public death of an Indigenous woman at the Joliette Hospital, Premier François Legault offered up his apologies to Joyce Echaquan's family. While the apology was a good first step in the eyes of the Atikamekw community, it isn't enough. They want the province to recognize that racism in the healthcare system is a persistent problem. Global's Anne Leclair reports. – Oct 7, 2020

Just one day after Quebec’s premier offered an apology to the family of Joyce Echaquan after her tragic death at the Joliette Hospital, a coroner has been appointed to investigate, a motion to fight racism was passed at the National Assembly, and another woman is speaking out about the racism she says she faced at the same hospital.

While Echaquan’s family and community welcome the latest developments, they ultimately want François Legault to recognize that systemic racism exists.

“I think it’s important to recognize things by their real name,” said the Atikamekw Nation’s Grand Chief Constant Awashish, adding that Legault’s unwillingness to acknowledge systemic racism is the very reason he wasn’t invited to Joyce Echaquan’s funeral on Tuesday.

“After his position on systemic racism they were not comfortable for him to be there in the community,” said Awashish.

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The official apology offered by Legault on Tuesday was a step in the right direction, Awashish said, but added it’s not nearly enough to restore trust in the community.

“What’s going on with the public inquiry, the investigation, they still have doubts, they lost trust in the public system,” Awashish said.

“We’ve had two apologies this year from this premier, now we need action.”

On Wednesday, coroner Géhane Kamel was named to lead the public inquest into Echaquan’s death.

The 37-year-old died just over a week ago after livestreaming her screams and calls for help, followed by degrading and racist remarks uttered by hospital staff. One nurse and an orderly have been fired and at least two investigations are ongoing.

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Kamel is already heading a coroner’s committee looking into death rates in Indigenous communities.

“I continue to think that there’s not a system of racism,” said Legault on Wednesday, after members of the National Assembly passed a motion in favour of fighting anti-Indigenous racism.

The opposition member who tabled the motion insinuated that Legault’s government needs to recognize systemic racism.

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“It’s a necessary step… it’s really important so I’m sure that the premier and the government are hearing this call,” said Joliette’s MNA Veronique Hivon.

Meanwhile, another woman has stepped forward, claiming she, too, has been the target of racism at the Joliette hospital.

The 58-year-old suffered a severe ankle fracture a few years ago and says emergency room staff left her and an Indigenous woman waiting for hours.

“When I heard about Joyce, I was totally enraged. I knew that this had been going on but I didn’t know to what length the staff there at the hospital would go to,” said Elpiniki Kapolis, who is of Greek descent.

“All the people that had arrived at the emergency room after us passed before us and we were the only two people left,” said Kapolis, who claims she immediately thought of that woman when she saw Echaquan’s video.

Elpiniki Kapolis. David Sedell / Global News

Quebec’s medical community is also calling for change in the wake last week’s incident. Close to 500 health-care providers across the province have already signed an open letter co-authored by Montreal-based pediatric emergency physician Dr. Samir Shaheen-Hussain.

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“Systemic racism not only exists but it kills people,” said Shaheen-Hussain, assistant professor in the Faculty of Medicine at McGill University and author of Fighting for a Hand to Hold: Confronting Medical Colonialism against Indigenous Children in Canada.

Shaheen-Hussain said he was pushed to publish his latest work after discovering among other things, the horrors that happened to Atikamekw families in the 50s and 60s, where children systematically disappeared in the health-care system.

“The medical establishment has played an active role in the genocide of Indigenous people,” said Shaheen-Hussain who’s convinced the next step to reaching a more just healthcare system includes recognizing the systemic discrimination that continues today.

“The consequence of not acting is that people are going to keep dying and people are going to keep suffering and as a healthcare (worker), physician I think it’s important to call that out,” said Shaheed-Hussain.

“There’s a saying that you can wake someone up if they’re asleep but you can’t wake someone up who is pretending to be asleep.”

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