The family of Joyce Echaquan, an Atikamekw woman who was subjected to degrading racist comments as she lay dying in a Joliette hospital, announced their decision to take legal action on Friday afternoon.
Members of Echaquan’s family, community members and lawyer Jean-François Bertrand spoke with reporters at the Lanaudière Native Friendship Centre.
“I am here today to ask for justice. I am here, for my wife Joyce Echaquan and her seven children who will never again see their mother,” said her husband Carol Dubé choking back tears.
Before her death on Monday, the 37-year-old Echaquan recorded a video from her hospital bed and posted it to social media. In it, she is pleading for help while hospital staff can be heard hurling insults and racist comments towards her.
Echaquan’s family said she had been admitted with stomach pain.
The regional health authority (CISSS de Lanaudière) responsible for the hospital where Echaquan died confirmed that a patient attendant was fired on Thursday afternoon, while a nurse heard in the video was fired earlier in the week.
The Quebec coroner’s office is investigating the circumstances surrounding Echaquan’s death and the regional health board is also conducting two separate investigations.
Bertrand said the family will be suing the Joliette hospital and its employees and taking various steps to ensure such a tragedy never happens again.
“We’re obviously talking about both employees that we heard on the Facebook Live, but there were other people who are just as complicit by their silence,” he said, adding that those who stood by while Joyce was being insulted on her deathbed are just as responsible.
The family will also be filing a claim with the Indemnisation des victimes d’actes criminels (IVAC) whose mandate it is to compensate crime victims.
Bertrand said to be eligible for compensation it is necessary to prove that a crime was committed.
“We will provide that proof to IVAC,” he said.
The family will also be filing a complaint with the human rights commission over the “racist and discriminatory” treatment to which Echaquan was subjected in her dying moments, as well as a complaint with the Quebec order of nurses.
“This person is not worthy of practicing the nursing profession… and we won’t be content with a simple firing,” Bertrand said, adding the hope is that she will be banned from practicing the profession for life.
Finally, the family will file an official complaint with police in the hopes that an investigation could lead to criminal charges.
The family also called on Quebec Premier François Legault to recognize the nature of systemic discrimination in Quebec.
“How many more people need to die so that finally we recognize that there is systemic racism against us Indigenous people,” Dubé said. “I am convinced that my wife died because systemic racism contaminated the Joliette hospital.”
Bertrand also said that they want the premier to come up with a plan with concrete actions to curb systemic racism.
Dubé said he holds no anger, but hopes his wife’s death will not be in vain.
“I cannot be angry now, because I cannot be like them. All I have is sadness.”
Assembly chief backs out of meeting with Legault
Echaquan’s death has sparked dozens of vigils in the province and has prompted multiple calls to action.
Ghislain Picard, the Chief of the Assembly of First Nations of Quebec and Labrador, was scheduled to meet with Premier François Legault in Montreal on Friday morning, but Picard abruptly cancelled it at the last minute.
“We still want to engage in the most favourable way, with the right conditions, which were not there this morning,” said Picard. “In light of the many, many calls that I had yesterday, up until late last night, until late this morning. Ultimately the decision, which was solely mine, was I didn’t have what I considered to be the minimum conditions to be there this morning.”
He added that he feels not attending the meeting sends a strong message.
On Thursday, Premier Francois Legault stood behind Quebec’s minister responsible for Indigenous affairs, amid calls for her resignation from the official opposition.
“What happened in Joliette shows us that there is an urgent need to act to fight against discrimination, in particular against Indigenous peoples,” he said.
During a press conference in Montreal on Friday afternoon, Legault expressed his frustration over the cancellation of the meeting.
“It’s not easy to meet with Mr. Picard, it’s not easy for Sylvie D’Amours,” he said in reference to a previously cancelled meeting. “I thought the problem was because he didn’t want to meet the minister…but even with the premier at the last minute he decided to cancel.”
In a tweet, Picard explained that he didn’t cancel the meeting but could not meet with the premier without Atikamekw chiefs present.
“It’s a question of respect,” he said.
Legault countered that he never refused to meet with Atikamekw leaders.
“The only thing we said is that they cannot be more than three, like we’re saying to all the guests coming to meet with me,” Legualt said, citing coronavirus restrictions.
Legualt indicated he’s impatient to get meetings happening soon.
“I’m a guy of results … I am not a patient guy and I would like to see results,” he said. “Last March, we put aside $200 million for the followup on the Viens report.”
The report called on the province to apologize to First Nations and Inuit peoples for systemic discrimination, after a lengthy inquiry into the relations between Indigenous communities and public services.
“Right now I have pages of recommendations from Indigenous Affairs but they are waiting to get the OK from the nations,” Legault said. “That’s why it’s so important that we meet with Mr. Picard.”
Legault said fighting racism is a priority for his government, but denies the issue is systemic.
“For me when we talk about systemic racism, it’s in relation with the Black people in the United States for reasons we know,” he said.
“For me I don’t see that in Quebec. For sure we have racism against the First Nations in Quebec and I want to fight. I want to be the government that will do the most actions to take against racism against the First Nations.”
— With files from the Canadian Press and Global’s Gloria Henriquez
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