She Was Racially Abused by Hospital Staff as She Lay Dying. Now a Canadian Indigenous Woman's Death Is Forcing a Reckoning on Racism
CANADA Indigenous Racism LAW
Protesters gather during a demonstration in central Montreal on October 3, 2020 to call for action for the death of Joyce Echaquan, a Canadian indigenous woman who was subjected to racial slur by hospital workers before she died. Credit - Eric Thomas - AFP
When Joyce Echaquan, a 37-year-old Indigenous Canadian, developed a stomach ache, she checked into a hospital in Joliette, Quebec. But she didn't get the help she needed. Instead, the hospital staff told Echaquan that she was stupid, just good for sex, and that she would be better off if she were dead.
Echaquan screamed and screamed in pain and started streaming live on Facebook. In the video, which has since gone viral, Echaquan says in her native language that she is concerned that doctors have given her too much morphine, which her family was allergic to. "You made some bad decisions, my dear," says a hospital worker in the background. "What will your children think when they see you like this?"
Echaquan died shortly after the video was posted online on September 28. Although the autopsy results have not yet been released, Echaquan's family believe the high dose of morphine she was given may have played a role. The hospital has started an internal review of the events.
The death of the mother of seven, a member of the Atikamekw Nation in southwest Quebec, has sparked outrage across Canada after a summer of protests centered on systemic racism against the country's indigenous peoples.
A dash cam video was released in June showing police officers beating Allan Adam, chief of the Athabasca Chipewyan Nation, after he stopped his vehicle because of expired license plates. The incident sparked nationwide protests demanding police reforms, as did the death of George Floyd in the United States.
That same month, health workers in British Columbia, the country's westernmost province, were accused of betting on indigenous patients' blood alcohol levels to raise awareness of racism in Canada's public health service. Now Echaquan's death has given the anti-racism movement renewed urgency and protests are taking place across the country.
"I am convinced that my partner is dead because systemic racism has contaminated Joliette Hospital," said Carol Dubé, Echaquan's partner, at a press conference on October 2 that announced that his family had filed a lawsuit against the hospital would submit. "She spent her last days in agony, surrounded by people who despised her, people who should protect her."
Since the Echaquan video surfaced, the government has opened three investigations, two of which are being carried out by regional health authorities who are investigating both the Echaquan's case and hospital practices in general. Both the nurse and the orderly shown in the video have since been released.
"Now we need action."
Politicians have spoken about Echaquan's death, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called it "the worst form of racism". Quebec Prime Minister François Legault apologized to Echaquan's family but denied that systemic racism was a problem in the province. "What happened to Ms. Echaquan is totally unacceptable," he said at the Quebec National Assembly, but added, "It doesn't mean Quebec is racist."
Many leaders of Canada's 1.6 million indigenous people, who have been listening to politicians from across the political spectrum for years, apologize for Canada's historical and ongoing racism against indigenous peoples, saying the time for talks is over.
"We had two excuses this year from that premiere," Atikamekw Nation's Grand Chief Constant Awashish told Global News, noting that Legault was not invited to Echaquan's funeral because of his opposition to systemic racism. "Now we need action."
There has been evidence of racism in the Canadian health system for years. In 2015, a report found that racism contributed to poorer health outcomes for Indigenous Canadians. As recently as 2018, indigenous women across the country were posting stories of forced sterilization. Echaquan's death himself has been a year since a public inquiry found indigenous peoples struggled to access government services in Quebec, including health care.
However, many indigenous peoples say that, despite these reports, too little has been done to combat racism in medical services. Indigenous Canadians still have lower life expectancies and higher rates of chronic illness than the national average. "The Joyce Echaquan case says nothing new," says Mary Jane McCallum, professor at the University of Winnepeg and Canadian Research Chair in Indigenous, History and Archives. "This case tells us that racism in health care threatens and ends the lives of indigenous people."
The COVID-19 pandemic has further shown how racism affects indigenous health. While the federal government has encouraged Canadians to socially distance themselves, wash their hands and get tested for symptoms, many Indigenous people have asked how to implement these measures when nearly a quarter of Indigenous Canadians are living in overcrowded homes and 61 indigenous nations live I have not had access to clean water for at least a year.
"Our health system was built on segregation," says McCallum. "White supremacy and colonialism are part of who we are - it's the air we breathe and the water we drink in Canada."
Federal and state governments state that they are taking measures against systemic racism against indigenous people. On September 30th, MPs gathered for Orange Shirt Day, a national event launched in 2013 to raise awareness of the traumatic effects of residential schools that served indigenous children from the Canadian government until the mid-1990s their communities were removed and Christian churches and forced to give up their cultures.
In the lower house, politicians commemorated the survivors of residential schools and also discussed Echaquan. "It's just unacceptable in Canada," Trudeau said of Echaquan's death. "We will do our best to eradicate racism where it exists."
But for Echaquan's family these are mere platitudes and not enough. "All I've got are questions and condolences, but no answers," Dubé said at a meeting taped by the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network before he burst into tears as his son comforted him. "I couldn't even tell her that I love her."
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