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

Alberta’s chief medical officer of health, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, said the 500 deaths from COVID-19 in the province are a tragic milestone. (Photo by Chris Schwarz/Government of Alberta)
Alberta hits ‘tragic milestone’ with more COVID-19 deaths

Province up to 500 COVID-19 deaths, adds 1,265 cases

(Black Press file photos)
City of Lacombe announces new public health measures

The city is adopting recommendations that were announced by the provincial government yesterday

The new bylaw will take effect on Nov. 30, 2020. Photo courtesy of the Town of Blackfalds.
Town of Blackfalds approves mandatory mask bylaw

The bylaw was approved after a council meeting on Nov. 24

Kyle Charles poses for a photo in Edmonton on Friday, Nov. 20, 2020. Marvel Entertainment, the biggest comic book publisher in the world, hired the 34-year-old First Nations illustrator as one of the artists involved in Marvel Voice: Indigenous Voices #1 in August. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
VIDEO: Indigenous illustrator of new Marvel comic hopes Aboriginal women feel inspired

Kyle Charles says Indigenous women around the world have reached out

People wear face masks as they pose next to a Christmas display in Montreal, Sunday, November 22, 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues in Canada and around the world. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes
How to tell family their Christmas gathering is too risky and you’re not going

Dr. Hurst says it’s best to frame the conversation from a place of care, stressing safety precautions.

A sign instructs people to wear masks in downtown Calgary on Friday, Oct. 30, 2020. Pub and restaurant owners are trying to figure out how to comply with a stricter COVID-19 measure in Alberta that dictates only six people from the same household can sit at one table. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
Brewpub owner pleased Alberta not closing sit-down dining as COVID-19 cases soar

Alberta’s caseload of COVID-19 infections has been growing for weeks

This undated photo issued by the University of Oxford shows of vial of coronavirus vaccine developed by AstraZeneca and Oxford University, in Oxford, England. (University of Oxford/John Cairns via AP)
Canada can make vaccines, just not the ones leading the COVID-19 race

Canada has spent more than $1 billion to pre-order seven different developing COVID-19 vaccines

(File photo)
Alberta woman charged after allegedly hitting boy with watermelon at B.C. campsite

Police say a disagreement among friends at an Adams Lake campsite turned ugly

A pedestrian wears masks while out walking in front of the Alberta Legislature as the COVID-19 numbers spike in Edmonton on Tuesday November 24, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
Doctor says Alberta restrictions not enough to reduceCOVID-19 strain on hospitals

Mithani notes people are still allowed to gather indoors at large places of worship and in bars,

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speak to the media about the COVID-19 virus outside Rideau Cottage in Ottawa, Friday, Nov. 20, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Canada’s inability to manufacture vaccines in-house will delay distribution: Trudeau

First doses of COVID-19 vaccine expected in first few months of 2021, prime minister says

This undated photo issued by the University of Oxford shows of vial of coronavirus vaccine developed by AstraZeneca and Oxford University, in Oxford, England. Pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca said Monday Nov. 23, 2020, that late-stage trials showed its coronavirus vaccine was up to 90% effective, giving public health officials hope they may soon have access to a vaccine that is cheaper and easier to distribute than some of its rivals. (University of Oxford/John Cairns via AP)
VIDEO: How do the leading COVID vaccines differ? And what does that mean for Canada?

All three of the drug companies are incorporating novel techniques in developing their vaccines

Ilaria Rubino is shown in this undated handout image at University of Alberta. Alberta researcher Rubino has developed technology allowing mostly salt to kill pathogens in COVID-19 droplets as they land on a mask. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-University of Alberta
Alberta researcher gets award for COVID-19 mask innovation

The salt-coated mask is expected to be available commercially next year after regulatory approval.

Most Read