Atikamekw liaison officer at Joliette hospital was ignored, barred from ER

The only Atikamekw person working at the Joliette hospital at the time of Joyce Echaquan's death says she was regularly ignored by staff and didn't have an office to work from.

Documents submitted at coroner's inquest show at least 11 complaints of racism, malpractice at hospital

Since 2015. the Centre hospitalier régional de Lanaudière, often referred to as the Joliette hospital, has been the site of at least 11 complaints of racist comments and treatment towards Indigenous community members. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)

The only Atikamekw person working at the Joliette hospital at the time of Joyce Echaquan's death says she was regularly ignored by staff and didn't have an office to work from.

Barbara Flamand said Tuesday at the inquiry into the 37-year-old Atikamekw woman's death that she had jumped at the chance of working as an Indigenous liaison officer at the Joliette hospital when the position was posted in February 2019 by the band council of the Atikamekw First Nation of Manawan.

"I really wanted to protect the members of my community, support them and accompany them" during hospital consultations, said Flamand.

But the 45-year-old said she was never able to properly do that because she was never introduced to staff at the hospital, didn't have an office where she could welcome Atikamekw patients and their families, and was even barred from entering the emergency room at times.

Echaquan died at the Joliette hospital northeast of Montreal on Sept. 28, 2020, shortly after filming herself being insulted and mocked by female staff.

That day, Flamand said she didn't know an Atikamekw woman was crying out in pain and was agitated. She only found out when Echaquan's mother called her in a panic, and asked Flamand to check on her daughter.

"I could hear the panic in her voice, she was so worried," Flamand said. She immediately ran to the ER. 

"I'm here to see Joyce, can you open the door?" Flamand said she asked. But the person on staff that day didn't recognize her, and despite her security pass, did not want to let her through.

"I was scared for Joyce. I heard the fear in her mother's voice — so I sneaked in through another door," Flamand said. When she reached the nurses' station, staff were trying to reanimate Echaquan.

Flamand was told to go wait in the family room, and was joined by Echaquan's sister-in-law. The doctor came in and told them they had done everything they could, but that the mother of seven was gone.

"I felt awful — how could I tell her family, her children? I knew she had children, and that she wanted to live," Flamand said.

Job vacant for 10 years

The role of Indigenous liaison officer had been empty for a full decade before Flamand was hired, she said.

"I thought I would be welcomed with open arms." But the only introduction she received on her first day was being shown to a desk she had to share with another employee.

Many staff members who have testified during this inquiry said they did not know an interpreter was available at the hospital.

When a family did contact her to ask for her assistance, Flamand said doctors often asked her to leave the room during consultations with patients, and assumed she was a member of the family.

"The nurses often wanted me to leave the ER, and told me visitors weren't allowed," said Flamand. "But often I'd stay anyway."

Doctor Jacques Ramsey, who is co-presiding the inquiry, told Flamand he was astounded by her testimony, and said the hospital failed at even making their own employee feel safe.

"It's pretty appalling. I don't know how you put up with them for two years," said Ramsey at the end of her testimony.

Flamand is currently on medical leave, and says she doesn't intend to return to the hospital.

Document shows multiple complaints of racism at hospital

A document put forward at the inquest Tuesday showed at least 11 complaints of racism, mistreatment and malpractice toward members of the Indigenous community at the Joliette hospital. 

The document, compiled by the complaints office of the CISSS de Lanaudière, details events dating back to November 2015 and up to last month. Out of the 18 instances described, 11 occurred at the Joliette hospital. 

The others occurred at the CLSC de Joliette, Centre d'hébergement Sylvie Lespérance and the region's youth protection system. 

The majority of the complaints were lodged for "racist behaviour" or "discriminatory comments." Others describe "poor interpersonal relations" and issues with the medical treatment provided to them. 

Out of the 11 complaints, the document states that only two of them resulted in an investigation of the personnel involved or increased supervision. 

Administrators and the head of nursing at the Joliette hospital are expected to testify Wednesday.