Family of Joyce Echaquan planning legal action over her death in Quebec hospital

The family of Joyce Echaquan, an Atikamekw mother of seven who died in a Joliette, Que., hospital Monday, is planning to take their fight for justice to the courts.

'My friend and spouse, Joyce, is gone,' says Carol Dubé, shaking with sobs as he described his wife's death

Carol Dubé says his wife was a kind, generous person who paid attention to the littlest of things. Now, he says, her seven children are left without a mother and he has lost his friend and spouse. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)

Carol Dubé says his wife died without dignity or her family by her side at the hands of people who were supposed to protect her — hospital staff who insulted and humiliated her as she lay screaming for help.

"She heard the most degrading comments, and this shows just once again just how differently we are treated as Indigenous people," he said, sobbing as he spoke to reporters on Friday.

"My wife's life is lost. A mother of seven children. My friend and spouse, Joyce, is gone."

Joyce Echaquan died in a Joliette, Que., hospital on Monday, her last moments captured by her cellphone camera as she broadcast the way health-care workers hurled insults at her.

Echaquan was from the Atikamekw community of Manawan, about 250 kilometres north of Montreal.

Now her family is waging a legal battle against the hospital and its staff, not just to recoup losses and bring those responsible to justice but also to "ensure what happened here never happens again," Dubé said.

"We think about all Indigenous people, especially women who are victims of racism in Quebec hospitals and experience unacceptable things," he said.

WATCH | Carol Dubé pleas for justice for his wife, Joyce Exchaquan: 

Impassioned plea for justice for Joyce Echaquan

3 years ago
Duration 2:02
Featured VideoEchaquan's husband, Carol Dubé, tearfully asks that her death not be in vain and calls for recognition that systemic racism exists.

Most incidents stay buried, though the Joliette hospital has come under fire before, Dubé said. Now the world can see why Indigenous people fear seeking medical help at the hospital, he said.

He said it was systemic racism that killed his wife, and he called on Quebec Premier François Legault to ensure everyone in the province has equal rights.

Investigation launched by province

A nurse and an orderly have since been fired, and three investigations have been launched.

Echaquan's death has generated widespread outrage and led to increased pressure on the Quebec government to address the kind of treatment laid bare in the disturbing video. 

"In 2020, a simple denunciation of systemic racism is not enough," the family's lawyer Jean-François Bertrand said.

He said the family will be launching a lawsuit against the hospital and seeking criminal charges against all those involved.

He said those who hurled the insults aren't the only ones liable for what happened. Those hospital staff who remained silent are also guilty, Bertrand said.

Joyce Echaquan's mother attended a vigil in memory of her daughter in Joliette, Que., about 70 kilometres north of Montreal. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)

The family will file a complaint with the Human Rights Commission, he said, and "we also request that there be a public inquiry into the treatment of the Atikamekw community at the Joliette hospital."

But the family won't be launching their fight alone.

"My heart goes out to her husband, Carol, and I share her children's pain," said Paul-Émile Ottawa, chief of the Atikamekw Council of Manawan.

"Everyone appreciated Joyce, and we will all miss her."
He said the council walks alongside Echaquan's family to overcome the ordeal and obtain justice.

Meeting with premier cancelled

Legault was set to meet Friday morning with Ghislain Picard, head of the Assembly of First Nations Quebec-Labrador, to discuss Echaquan's death and concerns of systemic racism in the province. 

But Picard cancelled the meeting, and the two have since traded words over the reasons why.

Picard later said he was still willing to engage with the government "in the most favourable way, with the right conditions, which were not there this morning."

But he said it is urgent that Legault and his minister of Indigenous affairs, Sylvie D'Amours, address the recommendations included in the Viens report.

The findings included in the provincial inquiry, made public a year ago, found it is "impossible to deny" Indigenous people in Quebec are victims of systemic discrimination in accessing public services, including health-care services.

Echaquan's death has led to renewed calls for the Quebec government to acknowledge systemic racism is a problem in the province. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)

One of the 142 calls to action was to ensure Indigenous people feel culturally safe when accessing public services. That is even more crucial when someone is in need of medical care, Picard said.

Legault said he, too, was willing to meet with Indigenous leaders to take the necessary steps. 

The premier has repeatedly denied the existence of systemic racism in Quebec, but said his government is committed to making changes in the wake of Echaquan's death.

"When we talk about systemic racism, for me it's in relation with the Black people in the United States. For me I don't see that in Quebec. But there is for sure some racism against the First Nations in Quebec, and I want to fight it," he said Friday.

Echaquan's death is the subject of a coroner's investigation, as well as two investigations by the local health authority. Quebec provincial police have said they will assist with the coroner's investigation.