Montreal

Family of Joyce Echaquan seeking $2.7M in lawsuit against Lanaudière health authority

Two years and a day after the death of Joyce Echaquan at a hospital near Joliette, Que., the Atikamekw woman's family announced Thursday that they are launching a civil suit against the regional health authority that oversees it.

Civil suit launched 2 years after Atikamekw woman's death at Joliette, Que., hospital

Joyce Echaquan's family has launched a lawsuit seeking $2.7 million in damages following her 2020 hospital death. The plaintiffs include Carol Dubé, centre right, Echaquan's mother Diane Dubé, left, and the couple's seven children. (Marie-Laure Josselin/Radio-Canada )

Two years and a day after the death of Joyce Echaquan at a hospital near Joliette, Que., the Atikamekw woman's family announced Thursday the launch of a civil suit against the regional health authority that oversees it.

The 37-year-old mother of seven from Manawan, 250 kilometres north of Montreal, died on Sept. 28, 2020, at the Centre hospitalier de Lanaudière, shortly after filming two hospital workers making fun of her plight and subjecting her to insults.

Nearly $2.7 million is being sought from the Centre intégré de santé et de services sociaux (CISSS) de Lanaudière, the nurse captured on video insulting Echaquan and the doctor assigned to provide her care, according to the statement of claim filed at the Joliette courthouse.

Speaking at a news conference Thursday, the family's lawyer, Patrick Martin-Ménard, claimed the health authority was well aware of how it was failing the Atikamekw community and should have known urgent action was needed to improve the care offered to community members.

"The CISSS de Lanaudière knew, or should have known, that by doing nothing to stop the infringement of the Manawan community's fundamental rights, that the situation would stay the same," Martin-Ménard said.

An employee with the health authority, Maryse Olivier, mentioned those concerns and had promised action would be coming while testifying at the Viens commission inquiry in 2018, he said. That inquiry was investigating the treatment of First Nations and Inuit in Quebec's public services.

"It was predictable that those like Joyce Echaquan would face what she would come to face," he said. "Nothing justifies the inaction."

Testimonials from the community in the years before Echaquan's death collected throughout the commission attest to this, the lawyer said. 

"We heard 20 witnesses from the community of Manawan who came to speak to us about the experiences they had at the Centre hospitalier régional de Lanaudiére," Martin-Ménard said. "A reality which reflects in many ways the same thing that Joyce went through two years later."

"The similarities are striking."

A bearded man in a red plaid shirt holds a little boy in his arms.
The husband of the late Joyce Echaquan, Carol Dubé, held the youngest of their seven children, Carol Jr., during a march in Manawan yesterday to remember Echaquan, two years after her death. (Marie-Laure Josselin)

The $2.675 million being sought for Echaquan's husband, mother and seven children includes $500,000 in punitive damages from the regional health authority, $20,000 from Paule Rocray (the nurse caught on Echaquan's livestream that day) and $155,000 from Dr. Jasmine Thanh.

A Quebec coroner concluded racism played a role in Echaquan's death, which was not from natural causes but because she didn't receive the care she was entitled to, something the family's lawyer underscored.

She died of pulmonary edema after being given powerful sedatives and going into cardiac arrest, an emergency physician told a coroner's inquiry into her death.

For months she sought help at the Joliette hospital for her chronic pain, Martin-Ménard said, but each time was sent home without any painkillers. Something that was happening to others from the community for years prior to her death, he said.

"One man came in multiple times over severe and incapacitating back pain that he was having.  Each time he was sent home because staff thought he was actually fine, and this was just part of a strategy to get narcotics," he said about a similar case in 2016.   

"After going to another hospital he finally found out he had a herniated disk and needed urgent surgery."

The hospital also failed to investigate the cause of her pain, later determined to be rheumatic heart disease, something that could have potentially prevented the cardiac arrest, the lawyer said.

Men in suits look solemn in a legislature.
Premier François Legault flanked by his justice minister, Simon Jolin-Barrette and his labour minister, Jean Boulet, bowed his head when the National Assembly observed a moment of silence in honour of Joyce Echaquan, on Oct. 6, 2020 (Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press)

'We want the premier to make an effort'

"It's hard today to go through this but we want justice for our daughter Joyce," Echaquan's mother, Diane Dubé, said on Thursday. 

The family still wants the province to adopt Joyce's Principle, published by the council of the Atikamekw Nation and the Atikamekw Council of Manawan and aimed at guaranteeing equitable access to health and social services without discrimination for Indigenous people.

"We want the premier to make an effort, to not forget Joyce, or ignore systemic racism," Echaquan's mother said.

While no amount of money will be enough to bring back his wife, Echaquan's husband of 22 years said the family decided to launch the suit because they wanted to honour her life.

"We need to fight, not just for me, but for everyone who was touched by what happened," Carol Dubé said. "Things need to change."

Martin-Ménard said there's still not enough being communicated to the family about how the hospital and health authority are implementing the recommendations that came out of the coroner's report into Echaquan's death.

Several measures have been put in place since the report, the health authority has previously said, including sensitivity training for health-care staff.

Offered since last June, that training has been criticized for failing to mention Echaquan's case, or calls to action coming out of the federal Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the provincial Viens Commission or the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.

The regional health authority declined to comment on the lawsuit. It has yet to file a response.

"Restoring that trust and improving the community of Manawan's quality of care is something that will be a long time coming," the family's lawyer said. 

"There needs to better accountability than there has been so far as to what actions the CISSS has or has not done in response to the situation."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Miriam Lafontaine is a journalist with CBC Montreal. She has previously worked with CBC in Fredericton, N.B. She can be reached at miriam.lafontaine@cbc.ca.

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