Calls for 'Justice for Joyce' after Indigenous woman's death in Quebec hospital

The circumstances surrounding the death of a 37-year-old Atikamekw woman in a Joliette hospital, one year after the government was handed recommendations to address systemic racism within government services, have ignited calls for action from the public.

2019 Viens report included 142 calls to action to address systemic racism, including in hospitals

A man and woman pose for a photo, their heads close together.
Carol Dubé, left, says his wife, Joyce Echaquan, was admitted into hospital with stomach pains on Saturday. The 37-year-old died on Monday. (Facebook)

During the last moments of her life, Joyce Echaquan called out her husband's name: "Carol, come get me."

A live video was rolling on her phone as nurses entered her hospital room on Monday in Joliette, Que. One of them called her "stupid as hell," mocking Echaquan as she moaned in Atikamekw that she was being given too much medication.

The 37-year-old died shortly after.

Surrounded by family in his parents' backyard the following day, Carol Dubé could not comprehend how his wife ended up dying after being admitted into hospital on Sunday with a stomach ache.

"I have seven kids who don't have a mother anymore," Dubé sobbed, his son's hand on his shoulder.

Echaquan's sister-in-law, Jemima Dubé, said Echaquan had posted several live videos during her stay in hospital, before the final one on the day of her death, because she didn't trust the medical staff.

Tell us what you think!

Help shape the future of CBC article pages by taking a quick survey.

Echaquan's death has sparked renewed calls for the Quebec government to act on recommendations included in the Viens Commission's report, which examined problems with Indigenous treatment in public services, and was tabled on Sept. 30, 2019.

Vigils were swiftly organized on Tuesday in Joliette, as well as in First Nations communities across Quebec, demanding "Justice for Joyce."

WATCH | Demands for change at Joyce Echaquan's vigil

Anger, shock and incomprehension after Joyce Echaquan's death

3 years ago
Duration 1:14
Demands for change at the vigil held outside the hospital where Joyce Echaquan was degraded and insulted by staff as she lay dying.

Seeing these events occur one year after the publication of the report is a "sad coincidence," said Cedric Gray-Lehoux, spokesperson for the First Nations of Quebec and Labrador Youth Network.

"It's one thing to know [racism] exists — it's another to see it be done so blatantly and with total disregard for the dignity of the person who is suffering," Gray-Lehoux said on CBC's Quebec radio show Breakaway.

Premier denies systemic racism to blame

In his report, Justice Jacques Viens stated that Indigenous peoples in Quebec are victims of systemic discrimination when it comes to getting public services. He issued 142 calls to action to address the government's shortfalls, including in the health sector.

On Monday, Premier François Legault offered his condolences to Echaquan's family, confirming a coroner's investigation and that a workplace investigation will be held. But Legault stopped short of saying the incident reflected systemic racism. 

"I really don't think that we have this way of dealing with First Nations people in our hospitals in Quebec," said Legault.

For Gray-Lehoux, denying the existence of racism within the public system despite a government report clearly stating the contrary "just makes it worse."

"How can we believe that they're going to take the steps to go forward, if they're not even willing to see the issues?"

The federal minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations, Carolyn Bennett, called the video "gut-wrenching."

About 100 people gathered outside Quebec's National Assembly to protest the treatment of Joyce Echaquan in a Joliette hospital. (Camille Simard/Radio-Canada)

"If you can't utter the words systemic racism, then you're probably part of the problem," Bennett said on Tuesday, calling it "a terrible week for Canada."

Little advancement for Indigenous women

Testimony at the Viens Commission highlighted discriminatory practices within hospitals and health-care services in Quebec.

Viens found that "it is clear that prejudice toward Indigenous peoples remains widespread in the interaction between caregivers and patients."

Ghislain Picard, the Chief of the Assembly of First Nations of Quebec and Labrador (AFNQL), said the video Echaquan shared leaves little room for interpretation.

Echaquan's husband, Carol Dubé, stands beside one of their seven children. (Radio-Canada)

"We recognize the filthy prejudices that continue to exist today, like the one that we don't pay for anything and live on government handouts," Pïcard said.

Some of those prejudices can lead to dire consequences, Viens concluded, including individuals and families sometimes avoiding medical care if they have had negative experiences in the past.

Adrienne Jérôme, Chief of the Lac Simon First Nation and spokesperson for the AFNQL Council of Elected Women, said it is often women who end up being victims of systemic racism.

That includes the women who first spoke out publicly about allegations of mistreatment by police officers in Val-d'Or in 2015, which led to the creation of the Viens Commission.

One year later, Jérôme said the only action she's witnessed was a public apology François Legault offered to First Nations and Inuit peoples in October 2019.

"Except for apologies, has anything changed? Not really."

Quebec's minister responsible for Indigenous Affairs, Sylvie D'Amours, said on Tuesday that 51 of the 142 recommendations from the Viens report currently have an action plan. 

"A call for action isn't that simple, it's a continuous process," D'Amours said during question period at the National Assembly, also offering her condolences to Echaquan's family.

For Carol Dubé, the only thing he'll settle for is concrete change.

"What are we waiting for?" he asked. "More people, more victims?"