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

Alberta Health Services' central zone jumped from 162 active COVID-19 cases to 178 on Friday. Five additional deaths were reported provincewide, bringing the toll to 323. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes
622 new COVID-19 cases set another daily high Friday

Province confirmed 622 additional cases Friday

City of Wetaskiwin Mayor presenting the AUMA Above & Beyond Award to John Maude and Susan Quinn. Ren Goode/ City of Wetaskiwin.
Wetaskiwin County residents win the AUMA Above & Beyond Award

John Maude and Susan Quinn are being recognized for their role in Wetaskiwin’s sustainability.

Alberta children whose only symptom of COVID-19 is a runny nose or a sore throat will no longer require mandatory isolation, starting Monday.
477 new COVID-19 cases confirmed in Alberta on Thursday

Changes being made to the COVID-19 symptom list for school-age children

There were 410 COVID-19 cases recorded in Alberta Wednesday. (File photo)
Alberta records 410 COVID-19 cases Wednesday

Central zone dropped to 160 active cases

Shaun Isaac, owner of Woodchucker Firewood in Trochu, is awaiting a new shipment during a firewood shortage in the province. All of the wood he has left is being saved for long-time customers who need it to heat their homes. (Contributed photo).
Firewood shortage in central Alberta caused by rising demand, gaps in supply

‘I’ve said “No” to more people than ever’: firewood seller

Conservative leader Erin O’Toole rises during Question Period in the House of Commons in Ottawa on Wednesday October 28, 2020. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)
Conversion therapy ban gets approval in principle, exposes Conservative divisions

Erin O’Toole himself voted in favour of the bill, as did most Conservative MPs

Pilots Ilona Carter and Jim Gray of iRecover Treatment Centres, in front of his company’s aircraft, based at Ponoka’s airport. (Perry Wilson/Submitted)
95-year-old Ilona Carter flies again

Takes to the skies over Ponoka

Children’s backpacks and shoes are seen at a daycare in Langley, B.C., on Tuesday May 29, 2018. Alberta Children’s Services Minister Rebecca Schulz says the province plans to bring in a new way of licensing and monitoring child-care facilities. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
Alberta proposes legislation to change rules on child-care spaces

Record-keeping, traditionally done on paper, would be allowed digitally

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau shakes hands with US Vice-President Joe Biden on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Friday, December 9, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/ Patrick Doyle
A Biden presidency could mean good news for Canadian environment policy: observers

Experts and observers say even a U.S. outside the Paris agreement may ultimately end up in the same place

People take a photo together during the opening night of Christmas Lights Across Canada, in Ottawa, on Wednesday, Dec. 4, 2019. The likelihood that most Canadians will enjoy a holly jolly Christmas season of gatherings, caroling and travel is unlikely, say public health experts who encourage those who revel in holiday traditions to accept more sacrifices ahead. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang
Ho, ho, no: Experts advise preparing for a scaled-back COVID holiday season

Many of the holiday season’s highlights have already been scrapped or are unlikely to take place

Sen. Kim Pate is shown in Toronto in an October 15, 2013, file photo. The parliamentary budget office says a proposed law that would give judges discretion on whether to apply a lesser sentence for murder could save the federal government $8.3 million per year. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Colin Perkel
Judicial discretion for mandatory minimum sentences for murder would save $8.3M: PBO

The result would be fewer people in long-term custody at federal correctional institutions, experts say

Husky Energy logo is shown at the company’s annual meeting in Calgary on May 5, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
Husky pipeline spills 900,000 litres of produced water in northwestern Alberta

The energy regulator says environmental contractors are at the site

Most Read