Quebec Premier François Legault took to Facebook Monday admitting he shares some of the blame for an acrimonious debate at the National Assembly last Tuesday on the one-year-anniversary of Joyce Echaquan’s death.
“I am all too aware that last week, at the National Assembly, we did not send a message of compassion and solidarity that the situation demanded, ” he wrote in French.
“I include myself in this and take responsibility for it. As premier I have a duty to lead by example. I sincerely try to do this every time I speak to Quebecers.”
Echaquan, an Atikamekw woman, died in a Quebec hospital while nurses uttered racial slurs at her. Since then, First Nations have been calling on the Quebec government to recognize systemic racism.
The debate in question erupted during question period, with Legault accusing Liberal MNA Greg Kelley of trying to divide Quebecers over a speech the latter delivered in June, saying Echaquan was Quebec’s George Floyd.
Kelley also criticized three government bills which he says stomp on minority rights, like its proposed French language reform, Bill 96.
Legault explained the next day what had angered him: “They are trying to put all that together, and trying to (say) Quebecers — like in the English debate — try to say that we are racists because of Bill 21 and Bill 96, and that’s in fact why this happened to Joyce Echaquan.”
Adding fuel to the fire, Legault cited later in the week the need for more productivity when asked why the new National Day for Truth and Reconciliation was not being recognized as a statutory holiday in Quebec.
Then on Friday, the coroner’s report into Echaquan’s death was released. It concluded that racism had indeed contributed to her death and urged the government to recognize systemic racism, capping off a difficult week for Legault.
The premier’s Facebook post was written to mark the National Day of Action for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.
Legault said it was important to put aside partisan politics to shine the light on what Indigenous peoples are going through. He also pointed to several initiatives by his government to implement the recommendations of the Viens Commission.
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But for some, the premier’s mea culpa is too little, too late.
“I’ve heard him say he apologizes for what happened to Indigenous women, to my face in a private room with a lot of Indigenous people hearing that,” said Phillipoe Meilleur, president of Native Montreal and the Quebec association of native friendship centres.
“What we want to hear is that same kind of contrition as the leader of this province in every forum that he has.”
He says Legault, as premier, needs to send a strong message if he hopes to gain the trust of Indigenous people and that includes recognizing systemic racism.
For now, Meilleur thinks Legault is walking a line between real reconciliation and appealing to part of his political base.
“It seems that we’re trying to maintain our electorates who voted against having more immigrants, so there’s definitely some kind of racial underpinning to those kind of policies,” he said.
— with files from Global News Dan Spector, Raquel Fletcher