1 year after Joyce Echaquan's death, Indigenous leaders say issues of racism in health care persist

A year has passed since 37-year-old Atikamekw woman Joyce Echaquan died at a hospital in Joliette, Que. Twelve months after she filmed hospital staff insulting her during her final hours, members of her community say issues of racism and discrimination persist in Quebec's health-care system.

Atikamekw Nation asks Quebec to acknowledge systemic racism on sombre anniversary

Joyce Echaquan's husband Carol Dubé hugs a loved one at the ceremony to commemorate the one-year anniversary of Joyce Echaquan's death in Joliette, Que. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)

During a sombre vigil to mark the one-year anniversary of Joyce Echaquan's death on Tuesday, members of her community said there hasn't been meaningful change in Quebec since the Atikamekw woman live streamed Joliette hospital staff mocking her while she cried for help.

She died shortly after the video aired, sparking widespread outrage across the province and around the world.

The Quebec government and local health authorities have since vowed to improve the situation, but people like Grand Chief of the Atikamekw Nation Constant Awashish say racism in the health-care system is still prevalent.

One of nurses that insulted Echaquan in her final moments has been suspended for one year by Quebec's order of nurses for the verbal abuse and for failing to evaluate the patient following a fall in the hospital.

Grand Chief of the Atikamekw Nation Constant Awashish spoke at a ceremony in Joliette, Que., to honour the memory of Joyce Echaquan on the one-year anniversary of her death. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)

"Joyce enabled a collective awakening," Awashish told the people in attendance. He said more work is needed to educate people about the discrimination Indigenous people endure.

Awashish and others who spoke at the ceremony renewed calls for the Legault government to recognize systemic racism, and to adopt Joyce's Principle, a series of measures drafted by the community after Echaquan died.

Ian Lafrenière, the minister responsible for Indigenous affairs, said his government was "100 per cent" in favour of implementing the recommendations listed in the document. 

"We all have a duty to remember what happened a year ago, the death of Joyce Echaquan in horrible circumstances," he said.

But the province won't accept Joyce's Principle in its entirety because of its mention of systemic racism.

Lafrenière said his government doesn't use the term because half of the people refuse to listen when it's mentioned. "It's not useful at all," he said, adding that it was more beneficial to avoid it so that more people can be on board with having a discussion.

Quebec's minister responsible for Indigenous affairs Ian Lafrenière, right, attended the ceremony to commemorate Joyce Echaquan in Joliette, Que., on Tuesday. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)

Awashish criticized this decision, saying that the continued denial of systemic racism makes the community feel like they are not being listened to, and creates a feeling of anxiety that Echaquan died in vain.

"We want the government to recognize the situation and call it by its real name," he said, adding that it was very important for the family but also for the community and all Indigenous people in Canada. "It's not by pure coincidence that we are in this situation," he remarked.

One the anniversary of Echaquan's death, her family's pain is still profound.

Joyce Echaquan's husband Carol Dubé gave an emotional speech about his wife on Tuesday, at a ceremony to commemorate the one-year anniversary of her death. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)

"This date is the saddest one that exists," said Echaquan's husband, Carol Dubé, in a poignant speech to honour his wife. "This event completely upset our lives."

"We need to give a sense to this tragic event — ignorance must give way to reconciliation," he said. "Despite everything, we are full of hope because we saw people speak out against racism, against discrimination."

Another vigil organized by a coalition of health-care workers took place in Montreal in the evening, which her family also attended. The coroner's report on Echaquan's death is expected next Tuesday.

With files from Simon Nakonechny and Franca G. Mignacca