The racist abuse faced by dying Indegenous woman Joyce Echaquan is symptomatic of systemic racism in Canada, writes John Clarke
On September 28, Joyce Echaquan, a 37 year old mother of seven from the Indigenous Atikamekw community of Manawan, died in hospital in Joliette, north of Montreal. As her life came to an end, those who were supposed to provide her with health care and emotional support, subjected her to a barrage of disgusting racist abuse that she was able to capture on film.
More than this, Joyce had been given morphine, which she may have been allergic to, and her attempts to explain that she was being over medicated were met only with the vilest insults. She was told that she was ‘stupid,’ that she was ‘only good for sex’ and medical staff are shown in the video complaining that their tax dollars were paying for her treatment. Their bigoted behaviour may well have gone over lethal neligence.
Echaqan’s family have shown astounding strength and courage in the face of their ordeal. Days after her death, her husband, Carol Dubé, stood before reporters, as plans to take legal action were announced, and declared, “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.”
A nurse and an orderly have been sacked over their role in the tragedy but the family’s legal representative has indicated that they want the nurse banned from the profession for life. They are also filing an official complaint with the police, in the hope that criminal charges can be laid. Quebec’s provincial police body, the Sûreté du Québec, has said that it is ‘collaborating’ with the coroner’s office.
The family has made clear that they consider Joyce’s death to have been caused by ‘systemic racism’ but, disgracefully, the Premier of Quebec, François Legault, has brushed this charge aside. “When we talk about systemic racism, for me it’s in relation to Black people in the United States, for reasons we know. For me, I don’t see that in Quebec," he told reporters. Legault maintains this in the face of the recent findings of the Viens Commission.
Headed by a Quebec Superior Court Justice, this body found that it was ‘impossible to deny’ the racism Indigenous people face in Quebec and, most significantly, the body of evidence it based its findings on included testimony from members of the Manawan community about the racist treatment they had experienced at the hands of staff at the Joliette Hospital.
The horrible treatment of Joyce Echaquan and the racism that Indigenous people face in Quebec need to be exposed and challenged but it must also be stressed that, what took place at the Joliette Hospital is part of a system of oppression that extends across all of Canada. Comparisons have been drawn between this most recent death and the tragic incident that took the life of another Indigenous person, Brian Sinclair, in 2008. Sinclair, a double amputee, went to Winnipeg's Health Science Centre with a treatable bladder infection. He received no help and was never asked if he needed medical care, even when he vomited on himself. He died in his wheelchair after 34 hours of fruitless waiting and it later emerged this was because it was assumed that he was drunk, rather than seriously ill.
Incidents of racist abuse and neglect within the Canadian healthcare system are commonplace. Five years ago, Michelle Labrecque, an Oneida woman, told media that she had had to make three trips to the Royal Jubilee Hospital in Victoria, British Columbia, before she could convince staff to carry out the examination that determined she had a fractured pelvis. She also described another incident at the same hospital, in 2008, when she had sought medication for severe stomach pain. She told the doctor on hand of her struggles with alcohol and her trouble in finding housing. He handed her a prescription and, when she got home, found he had scribbled on it ‘a crude drawing of a beer bottle, circled with a slash through it.’
The racism within the healthcare system is only a particular manifestation of the colonial relationship between the Canadian state and the Indigenous nations that were dispossessed in order to create it. This has meant that healthcare has been provided to Indigenous people on a substandard basis but also that its delivery has been shaped in ways that correspond to objectives of regulation and control. A look at the history of the ‘Indian hospital’ system in Canada makes this very clear.
Segregated medical treatment for Indigenous patients had long been the norm in community hospitals but the onset of tuberculosis intensified the process. Bureaucrats and medical professionals invented ‘Indian tuberculosis’ and used it to justify a system of veritable healthcare apartheid.
In 2013, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, established by the Canadian government, looked at the history of medical experimentation on Indigenous populations and found they ‘were not only subjected to nutritional experiments by the federal government in the 1940s and 1950s but were also used as medical test subjects’ and that ‘medicines were tested in aboriginal communities and residential schools before they were utilized publicly.’
If Indigenous people were used for medical experiments, healthcare ‘services’ have also been employed as a direct method of limiting Indigenous populations. A class action lawsuit has been launched by 100 Indigenous women to seek compensation for the coerced sterilisation they have been subjected to. The abuses these women faced did not take place in the shadowy past. They are seeking redress for procedures that were inflicted on them between 1985 and 2018. "Some of the women did not realize that physicians, nurses, other health-care professionals, the government — couldn't make decisions for them about their bodies," their legal representative informed the media.
In 2018, it was reported that hundreds of Inuit children were flown each year from Nunavik, the northern portion of Quebec, to Montreal for medical treatment. Under a brutal policy operated by Quebec Aeromedical Evacuations, the provincial body responsible for medical air transport, parents and other caregivers were being denied the right to accompany the children. They would have to take commercial flights and be separated, sometimes for days, from children who might be critically ill or severely injured.
In December of that year, acute care pediatricians issued a letter complaining that this inhuman policy ‘compromised clinical care and patient safety, while violating basic ethical precepts.’ A campign called #aHand2Hold was taken up that finally forced the Quebec authorities to relent and allow sick and frightened children to fly with someone they loved and trusted but the racist cruelty that maintained this practice for decades is, sadly, still very much alive.
The needless and terrible death of Joyce Echaquan has sparked outrage across Canada. Robert Sinclair, whose cousin Brian died of medical neglect in the above mentioned Winnipeg hospital in 2008, told the Echaquan family to ‘never give up.’ “Keep it going. Don’t let other people end up like this, to be mistreated and to die....We know that this happens. As an Aboriginal person, I know it happens because I’ve felt it. It’s an odd kind of feeling to feel that racism,” he said.
There have been rallies in many parts of the country, including a thousands strong Justice for Joyce march in Montreal. As it was underway, Quebec’s Public Security Minister, Genevieve Guilbault, obviously under immense pressure, announced that she had asked the coroner to convene a full public inquiry into the death of Joyce Echaquan.
The lethal racism at work in the hospital in Joliette showed the medical face of Canadian colonialism. However, the challenge to it, including that of Joyce’s family and community, demonstrates the unbreakable nature of Indigenous resistance. Joyce herself, even as she faced her tormentors while deathly sick, had the courage and presence of mind to film the events and ensure a record of what was being done to her would be left.
In recent weeks, we have seen Haudenosaunee Land Defenders in south west Ontario re-occupying a proposed development site and defending their rights. We have seen Mi’kmaw fishers in Nova Scotia upholding their right to fish the waters in the face of racist attacks enabled by the police, as the ‘rule of law’ is exposed as the law of the rulers. Those acts of resistance are part of a struggle that has gone on since Canada was created and that will continue until a society free of colonial oppression is created on this land.
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John Clarke became an organiser with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty when it was formed in 1990 and has been involved in mobilising poor communities under attack ever since.