Joyce Echaquan’s death prompts Manawan Atikamekw Council to turn to United Nations

Quebec Indigenous Affairs Minister Ian Lafrenière made the promise to enshrine cultural safety in the law in March 2021, following reports of allegations of new cases of discrimination at the same hospital where Echaquan died. Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press

The Manawan Atikamekw Council has filed an official complaint with the United Nations and a demand for an investigation into systemic racism within government organizations in Canada six months after the death of Joyce Echaquan, who was subjected to racial slurs before she died in the care of a Quebec hospital.

The seven-page letter to the UN’s special rapporteur on the rights of Indigenous Peoples, which was sent on International Women’s Day, puts forth several requests to the organization.

The council says women and girls who are Indigenous are often not granted the same rights as men and their non-Indigenous counterparts — and that they still face hatred, discrimination and violence.

“We therefore wish to celebrate this International Women’s Day by reiterating our admiration for our Atikamekw fighters and by promising them that tomorrow, they will be able to live safely in the community, here in Manawan, and everywhere else,” the letter reads.

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The council specifically also asks for investigators to visit Canada and probe systemic racism in government services, as well as to implore the country to adopt Joyce’s Principle. The call to action aims to ensure that Indigenous people have equal access to “the highest standard” of government-run health services.

Echaquan, 37, died last September while she was at a hospital in Joliette, Que. The Atikamekw mother of seven was subjected to slurs by staff as she lay dying in hospital and recorded the racist insults in a video posted on Facebook before her death. The video was shared around the world.

The troubling circumstances surrounding Echaquan’s death have sparked a series of investigations and raised questions about how Indigenous people are treated in Quebec’s health-care system as well as in Canada in general. For years, First Nations have complained about discrimination in hospitals and other institutions.

The council’s letter also urges the UN to lobby the Canadian government “to have systemic racism recognized in all public institutions. This recognition must be done not only at the federal level, but also within all Canadian provinces and territories, particularly in Quebec.”

Click to play video: 'Ottawa adopts Joyce’s Principle to guarantee health care access without discrimination'
Ottawa adopts Joyce’s Principle to guarantee health care access without discrimination

In recent months, the provincial government has worked to mend its relationship with Indigenous communities in wake of Echaquan’s death and has acknowledged racism against Indigenous people — but it has repeatedly refused to accept the term “systemic racism.”

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Last week, while unveiling funding for better access to the justice system, Quebec Indigenous Affairs Minister Ian Lafrenière said he preferred not to get into a debate about semantics and instead focus on “concrete actions.”

Quebec has also refused to adopt Joyce’s Principle, which was developed by the Manawan Atikamekw Council and the Council of the Atikamekw Nation, citing the use of the term. The Canadian government, meanwhile, has set aside $2 million to help the Atikamekw Nation begin implementing the policies.

Read more: Federal government allots $2M to help Atikamekw Nation implement Joyce’s Principle

Carol Dubé, Echaquan’s husband, said in a statement that his wife was a warrior and that she screamed until her last breath to denounce racism. Her battle won’t stop until systemic racism no longer exists, he said.

“The problems and must disappear once and for all from our federal and provincial systems,” he said. “But it takes a will to act and a recognition that we must do more to achieve real equality.”

The Quebec coroner’s office will hold public hearings into Echaquan’s death starting May 13 in Joliette, about 75 kilometres northeast of Montreal.

—With files from The Canadian Press

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