Quebec faces pressure to act against anti-Indigenous racism after Joyce Echaquan's death

Indigenous leaders are applying growing pressure on Quebec to address the racism evidenced in a disturbing video Joyce Echaquan recorded just before dying in a Joliette hospital. An orderly who was attending to her has been fired, along with a nurse.

Orderly becomes 2nd employee at Joliette hospital to be fired following troubling video

Sylvie D'Amours, the minister responsible for Indigenous affairs, is under growing scrutiny over her handling of the Viens report. (Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press)

Pressure is mounting on the Quebec government to address the racism evidenced in a disturbing video Joyce Echaquan recorded just before dying in a Joliette hospital, but the provincial minister handling the file has kept a low profile over the last few days.

Sylvie D'Amours, the provincial minister responsible for Indigenous affairs, has faced repeated criticism for her inaction since the Viens report, which documented discrimination Indigenous people face when receiving public services, was made public a year ago.

Echaquan, a mother of seven from the Atikamekw community of Manawan, died on Monday. 

Opposition parties at the National Assembly criticized D'Amours for not speaking out about the death, other than issuing a press release.

On Thursday, she gave an interview to Radio-Canada's afternoon radio show Le 15-18. Host Isabelle Craig questioned why D'Amours hadn't spoken to media directly since the death on Monday.

WATCH | Government aware of racism allegations at Joliette hospital before Joyce Echaquan's death:

Government aware of racism allegations at Joliette hospital before Joyce Echaquan’s death

2 years ago
Duration 1:57
The Quebec government was made aware of allegations of racism against Indigenous people at the Joliette Hospital long before Joyce Echaquan recorded racist comments from staff before her death.

"You probably weren't looking at social media," D'Amours told Craig, noting she'd been at the vigil held Tuesday, offered her condolences to the family and had a meeting with Health Minister Christian Dubé and Manawan Chief Paul-Émile Ottawa.

"It might be a way of working that is different than others, but I made my presence with the family known more discreetly."

On Twitter, Dubé confirmed the meeting between him, D'Amours and Chief Ottawa, concerning the recommendations made in the Viens report specific to health care.

"We must take the necessary actions to ensure that a situation like Joyce Echaquan's never happens again," Dubé wrote.

An orderly who was attending to Echaquan was fired on Thursday, the second health-care worker to be dismissed since the video surfaced. A nurse was fired on Tuesday.

Echaquan's death is the subject of three investigations: two by the local health authority and a coroner's investigation.

Quebec Premier François Legault said Thursday he too had been in touch with Echaquan's partner, Carol Dubé, the father of their seven children, and had expressed his condolences.

WATCH | Carol Dubé, Joyce Echaquan's partner, calls for change:

Joyce Echaquan's husband asks: 'what are we waiting for?'

2 years ago
Duration 0:55
Carol Dubé pleads for accountability after his wife's death in troubling circumstances.

Pandemic has slowed progress, Legault says

Legault said Echaquan's partner wants to make sure something like this never happens again. On that front, Legault said, his government is making progress.

But he said the pandemic delayed the government's ability to act on the recommendations in the Viens report.

"It's not that easy. We first want to have an agreement with the First Nations because they don't want us to apply recommendations without their consent, so it wasn't possible in the past seven months to continue having those meetings," he said.

Echaquan's death has prompted outcry far beyond the borders of her home community of Manawan, and has become the focus of opposition politicians in Quebec City.

One of Joyce Echaquan's children attended the vigil earlier this week near the Joliette hospital where her mother died. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)

Liberal Leader Dominique Anglade has called on D'Amours to resign, while Québec Solidaire tabled a motion calling on the province to adopt the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, one of the key recommendations in the Viens report.

Veronique Hivon, a Parti Quebecois MNA representing Joliette, said she is hopeful Echaquan's death will lead to swift change.

She wants the government to follow through on recommendations in the Viens report that might have helped Echaquan, including ensuring health authorities "set up services and programs based on cultural safeguard principles developed for Indigenous peoples and in co-operation with them."

"I think today it's really important to send a signal that actions must be taken," she said.

Jennifer Brazeau, the executive director of the Native Friendship Centre in Lanaudière, said she has heard dozens of stories of wrongdoing by medical staff in Joliette. She said Indigenous people living elsewhere have similar stories.

"As an Indigenous person, you often feel that you're not going to be believed or that people are looking to see what your fault is in this," she said.

In a statement earlier this week, D'Amours condemned racism against Indigenous people and said she has a plan in place to follow through on 51 of the 142 calls to action in the Viens report.

Legault, for his part, said his government's action plan on racism will be tabled in the coming weeks, and said his government will act on those recommendations.

With files from Cathy Senay