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

As of Friday, Alberta has under 10,000 active COVID-19 cases. (Image courtesy CDC)
Three new COVID-19 deaths in Central zone, Alberta under 10,000 active cases

The Central zone sits at 849 active cases, with 52 people in hospital and 10 in the ICU.

Black Press File Photo
Maskwacis RCMP lay charges for attempted murder, kidnapping, and flight from police

Female victim remains in hospital in serious condition.

(File photo)
After several years in limbo, Parkland Manor to be torn down

Rimoka Housing Foundation has received funding and approval for the demolition

Alberta’s chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw announced 16 additional deaths Thursday. (Photo by Chris Schwarz/Government of Alberta)
No easing of Alberta’s COVID-19 measures Thursday, 678 new COVID-19 cases

The province also hit 1,500 COVID-19 deaths since the beginning of the pandemic

Lucas Berg, left, with the backpacks filled with essential items he donated to the Red Deer Mustard Seed Jan. 19, 2021. (Photo submitted)
Ponoka youth fills backpacks for less fortunate

Lucas Berg, 14, of Ponoka County, donated 20 backpacks he filled with necessities

Alberta’s chief medical officer of health, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, updates media on the COVID-19 situation in Edmonton, Friday, March 20, 2020. Hinshaw says residents in long-term care and supportive living facilities will remain the priority as the province grapples with a looming slowdown in COVID-19 vaccine supply. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
Alberta long-term care residents remain priority in looming slowdown of COVID vaccine

There are 119 patients in intensive care and 1,463 people have died

In this Dec. 18, 2020 photo, pipes to be used for the Keystone XL pipeline are stored in a field near Dorchester, Neb.  THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Chris Machian /Omaha World-Herald via AP
‘Gut punch’: Alberta Premier Jason Kenney blasts Biden on revoked Keystone XL permit

Kenney said he was upset the U.S. wouldn’t consult with Canada first before acting

Joe Biden, then the U.S. vice-president, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau take their seats at the start of the First Ministers and National Indigenous Leaders meeting in Ottawa, Friday, Dec. 9, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Trudeau, Biden to talk today as death of Keystone XL reverberates in Canada

President Joe Biden opposed the Keystone XL expansion as vice-president under Barack Obama

Prince Edward Island’s provincial flag flies on a flag pole in Ottawa, Friday July 3, 2020. A lozenge plant in Prince Edward Island has laid off 30 workers, citing an “almost non-existent” cold and cough season amid COVID-19 restrictions. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
‘Almost non-existent’ cold and cough season: P.E.I. lozenge plant lays off 30 workers

The apparent drop in winter colds across the country seems to have weakened demand for medicine and natural remedies

Gov. Gen. Julie Payette takes the royal salute from the Guard of Honour as she makes her way deliver the the throne speech, Wednesday, September 23, 2020 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Fred Chartrand
Gov. Gen. Julie Payette resigns, apologizes for ‘tensions’ at Rideau Hall

Payette, who is the Queen’s representative in Canada, has been the governor general since 2017

Grounded WestJet Boeing 737 Max aircraft are shown at the airline’s facilities in Calgary, Alta., Tuesday, May 7, 2019. WestJet will operate the first commercial Boeing 737 Max flight in Canada today since the aircraft was grounded in 2019 following two deadly crashes. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
Passengers unfazed as WestJet returns Boeing 737 Max to service on Calgary flight

After a lengthy review process, Transport Canada cleared the plane to return to Canadian airspace

(Photo submitted)
Community Futures brings back Social Media Challenge for 2021

This time the challenge is for non-profits and community groups

A conveyor belt transports coal at the Westmoreland Coal Co.’s Sheerness mine near Hanna, Alta., on Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2016. Coal mining impacts are already occurring in Alberta’s Rocky Mountains even as debate intensifies over the industry’s presence in one of the province’s most beloved landscapes. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
As Alberta debates coal mining, industry already affecting once-protected Rockies

UCP revoked a policy that had protected eastern slopes of the Rockies from open-pit coal mining since 1976

Most Read