A picture of Joyce Echaquan is seen during a vigil on Tuesday, September 29, 2020 in front of the hospital where she died in Joliette, Que. Advocates say the fate of Echaquan is a tragic example of the systemic racism many Indigenous people face while accessing health care. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson

A picture of Joyce Echaquan is seen during a vigil on Tuesday, September 29, 2020 in front of the hospital where she died in Joliette, Que. Advocates say the fate of Echaquan is a tragic example of the systemic racism many Indigenous people face while accessing health care. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson

Joyce Echaquan’s death highlights systemic racism in health care, experts say

The Atikamekw mother of seven died soon after she filmed herself from her hospital bed

The fate of Joyce Echaquan, an Indigenous woman who died in a Quebec hospital after filming staff insulting her, is a tragic example of the systemic racism many Indigenous people face when accessing health services in Canada, advocates and patients say.

The Atikamekw mother of seven died soon after she filmed herself from her hospital bed last Monday while she was in clear distress and pleading for help. Toward the end of the video, which was streamed live, two female hospital staff enter her room and are heard making degrading comments, including calling her stupid and saying she’d be better off dead.

The video has created widespread indignation, several inquiries and a lawsuit from Echaquan’s family against the hospital where she died in Joliette, Que. But Yvonne Boyer, a Metis Canadian senator, lawyer, and former nurse, says what happened to Echaquan was in no way a surprise.

“For every Joyce Echaquan that comes forward, there’s a hundred that have not been heard,” she said in a phone interview.

Echaquan’s partner, Carol Dube, says he believes she died as a result of the racism she and many other Indigenous people face.

“I’m convinced that my partner is dead because systemic racism contaminated the Joliette hospital. It killed my partner,” he told a news conference Friday at which his lawyer announced a lawsuit and a criminal complaint against the hospital.

Frederick Edwards, a Cree man from Manitoba, said he has faced racism and stereotypes throughout his life while trying to access health care.

He remembers being in unbearable pain before going to an emergency room in Winnipeg about seven years ago, after having already seeing multiple doctors who couldn’t provide a diagnosis. He says he was shocked when the triage nurse immediately told him to shut up and sit down — treatment that made him feel “worthless.”

After being made to wait, then seeing a doctor who dismissed his symptoms, his phone rang as he waited in the ER: a doctor he had seen previously had results of a blood test showing that his health was at serious risk. He was rushed to surgery at another hospital because his gallbladder had ruptured.

“I don’t like hospitals because of so many bad experiences,” Edwards, a communications professional, said in an interview. “This is just one of them.”

READ MORE: Family of Indigenous woman subjected to slurs in Quebec hospital to announce lawsuit

Boyer said discrimination in the health-care system is “pervasive,” spanning every province and territory.

As an example, she cited legal actions being mounted in Alberta, Saskatchewan and British Columbia by Indigenous women who allege they were forced or coerced into undergoing sterilization procedures.

Accounts from Indigenous women in 2015 about forced sterilizations in Saskatchewan led to hundreds more coming forward with similar stories from across the country. A report into the Saskatchewan tubal ligations found the women felt profiled and powerless and concluded racism exists within the health-care system.

Boyer said she received another email from a Canadian Indigenous woman alleging a coerced procedure on Thursday, suggesting such practices are not just a relic of the past.

The issue of health-care discrimination was also raised in the case of Brian Sinclair, a 45-year-old Indigenous man who died of sepsis in 2008 after sitting in a Winnipeg hospital in his wheelchair for 34 hours.

Later it was discovered that staff assumed he was homeless or intoxicated. By the time his body was discovered, rigor mortis had set in. An inquest into the death made recommendations about structural changes to how hospitals conduct triage, but family members have said it didn’t address the real issue – racism in the health-care system.

Mary Jane Logan McCallum, a member of the Munsee Delaware Nation in Ontario and co-author of a book about Sinclair’s death, said racism continues to be a significant barrier to proper health care for Indigenous people. They fear facing stereotypes, having their symptoms ignored or being left to die without treatment.

“This is not a one-off for Indigenous people,” McCallum said in reference to the deaths of Sinclair and Echaquan. “This is absolutely part of the way that many Indigenous people prepare themselves to go to the hospital.”

In Montreal, Nakuset, the executive director of the Native Women’s Shelter, said situations like Echaquan’s are “heartbreakingly normal.”

Over the last 20 years of directing the shelter, she says she’s seen and heard of countless instances of racism, including a Cree patient being told to go to a Mohawk reserve for treatment and an Inuk woman leaving a health-care facility in tears after being rebuffed while seeking treatment for an addiction.

It’s so bad, she said, that the shelter has taken to sending support workers with patients to the hospital, partly to witness and document racist incidents.

Quebec Premier Francois Legault has denounced Echaquan’s treatment as “unacceptable,” and on Saturday, deputy premier Genevieve Guilbault announced that she has asked the coroner’s office to order a public inquest into the death. The two health-care workers heard in the video have been fired. But Legault has consistently maintained there is no systemic racism in the province.

Echaquan’s death took place almost a year to the day after a public inquiry released 142 recommendations aimed at improving Indigenous people’s access to government services in Quebec. Though Quebec’s minister responsible for Indigenous affairs said this week that dozens of those recommendations have been implemented, both Boyer and Nakuset question her claim.

After all the inquests and recommendations, both women feel that little real change has occurred.

“How are you ever supposed to fix (systemic racism) if people believe it doesn’t exist?” Boyer said in reference to Legault.

She said there needs to be a “national response” that sets clear standards for hospitals and clear consequences for those who violate them.

Nakuset, who organized a protest in downtown Montreal on Saturday, is hopeful that what happened to Echaquan could be a turning point for Canada, the way the death of George Floyd during an arrest by police in Minnesota galvanized the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States.

She believes there’s still hope for change, but only if Canadians from all backgrounds demand it.

“The only way that we can make changes as a society is to show up, because actions speak louder than words,” she said.

Morgan Lowrie and Kelly Geraldine Malone, The Canadian Press


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism during the pandemic? Make a donation here.

HealthcareIndigenousRacial injusticeracism

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Pipestone Flyer file photo
Nominations now open for 2021 general municipal election

Nominations for Wetaskiwin’s general municipal election are now open until Sept. 20, 2021.

Facebook/ Jocelyne Pepin Young
 Facebook/ Jocelyne Pepin Young
 Facebook/ Jocelyne Pepin Young
 Facebook/ Jocelyne Pepin Young
Millet Couple share their COVID project, Little Free Library, with the community

They took inspiration from others doing similar book shares around Millet and Wetaskiwin.

Black Press file photo
Wetaskiwin RCMP investigate fatal pedestrian collision

A 37-year-old man from Maskwacis has died in hospital as a result of his injuries.

People skate on a lake in a city park in Montreal, Sunday, January 10, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes
The end of hugs: How COVID-19 has changed daily life a year after Canada’s 1st case

Today marks the one year anniversary of COVID-19 landing in Canada

SARS-CoV-2 virus particles, which causes COVID-19, emerge from the surface of cells isolated from a patient in the U.S. and cultured in a lab in a 2020 electron microscope image. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-HO, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases - Rocky Mountain Laboratories
Alberta adds 463 new COVID-19 cases on Sunday

The central zone has 818 active cases

Terrance Josephson of the Princeton Posse, at left, and Tyson Conroy of the Summerland Steam clash during a Junior B hockey game at the Summerland Arena in the early spring of 2020. (John Arendt - Summerland Review)
QUIZ: How much do you know about hockey?

Test your knowledge of Canada’s national winter sport

Red Fraggle, one of Jim Henson Company’s Fraggle Rock characers, is shown at Time To Play Holiday Show, Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2010, in New York. The Jim Henson Company says production has officially started in Calgary on a reboot of the original 1980s children’s puppet series, which was filmed in Toronto.THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Mark Lennihan
‘Fraggle Rock’ children’s puppet series reboot starts production in Calgary

A spokesperson says the new series will stream on Apple TV plus

A registered nurse prepares a dose of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine in Halifax on Monday, Jan. 11, 2021. Yukon’s Minister of Community Services, John Streiker, says he’s outraged that a couple from outside the territory travelled to a remote community this week and received doses of COVID-19 vaccine. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan-POOL
Couple charged after travelling to Yukon to get COVID-19 vaccine

The maximum fine under the emergency measures act is $500, and up to six months in jail

Metis Nation of B.C. President Clara Morin Dal Col poses in this undated handout photo. The Metis Nation of B.C. says Dal Col has been suspended from her role as president. The Metis Nation of B.C. says Dal Col has been suspended from her role as president. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO, Metis Nation of B.C. *MANDATORY CREDIT*
Metis Nation of B.C. suspends president, citing ‘breach’ of policies, procedures

Vice-president Lissa Smith is stepping in to fill the position on an acting basis

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks in the in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Thursday, Dec. 3, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang
Payette shouldn’t get same benefits as other ex-governors general: O’Toole

Former governors general are entitled to a pension and also get a regular income paid to them for the rest of their lives

A woman injects herself with crack cocaine at a supervised consumption site Friday, Jan. 22, 2021 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Drug users at greater risk of dying as services scale back in second wave of COVID-19

It pins the blame largely on a lack of supports, a corrupted drug supply

RCMP. (Phil McLachlan - Black Press Media)
Blackfalds RCMP investigate fatal collision

Preliminary investigation revealed a south bound pickup truck collided with an eastbound car

Jennifer Cochrane, a Public Health Nurse with Prairie Mountain Health in Virden, administers the COVID-19 vaccine to Robert Farquhar with Westman Regional Laboratory, during the first day of immunizations at the Brandon COVID-19 vaccination supersite in Brandon, Man., on Monday, January 18, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Tim Smith - POOL
Top doctor urges Canadians to keep up with COVID measures, even as vaccines roll out

More than 776,606 vaccines have been administered so far

Dr. Jerome Leis and Dr. Lynfa Stroud are pictured at Sunnybrook Hospital in Toronto on Thursday, January 21, 2021.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn
‘It wasn’t called COVID at the time:’ One year since Canada’s first COVID-19 case

The 56-year-old man was admitted to Toronto’s Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre

Most Read