As It Happens·Q&A

Joyce Echaquan's courage has empowered Indigenous people to speak up, says grand chief

Atikamekw Nation Grand Chief Constant Awashish says Joyce Echaquan's filming of her own mistreatment at the hands of hospital staff has emboldened other Indigenous people across the country to speak up about racism.

Quebec coroner says people never would have known about Echaquan's mistreatment if she didn't film it

Joyce Echaquan died in hospital shortly after filming herself as staff hurled racist remarks at her. (Facebook)

Story Transcript

One of Joyce Echaquan's final acts before she died was to film her mistreatment at the hands of hospital staff in Joliette, Que.

Her courage has emboldened other Indigenous people across the country to speak up about racism, says Atikamekw Nation Grand Chief Constant Awashish.

Echaquan, an Atikamekw woman, died in hospital of pulmonary edema on Sept. 28, 2020, shortly after recording herself as staff members hurled racist remarks at her.

Quebec coroner Géhane Kamel said Tuesday that if Echaquan were white, she would have received the care she needed and still be alive today. The lawyer representing Echaquan's parents said they will soon file a lawsuit, with the details to come over the next few days.

The top recommendation in Kamel's report into Echaquan's death is for the Quebec government to recognize the existence of systemic racism within its institutions.

It's a step that Premier François Legault has refused to take. On Tuesday, he blamed Echaquan's death on "a few employees" who "didn't deliver the right services to her."

Awashish says it's time for the premier to revise his position. Here is part of his conversation with As It Happens host Carol Off. 

What do those words from François Legault say to you following this report on the death of Joyce Echaquan?

It's kind of difficult to hear those kinds of comments. I know his position, and he's been having the same position for way before he was in power. And I think he's just seeing ... the result, and he doesn't see the cause.

Because there's a cause of ... why the stereotypes of First Nations [exist], why First Nations are having a hard time today, why we are, like, 60, 70, some places 90 years behind in terms of social development. It's not by coincidence. Because there is a system put in place. 

That's what he doesn't want to see. And even [Premier Doug] Ford in Ontario recognizes systemic racism. So I don't understand why he's tried to keep on going and denying there's systemic racism.

Constant Awashish, grand chief of the Atikamekw Nation, says Echaquan's courage has empowered others to speak out against systemic racism. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)

The coroner in Quebec does recognize that systemic racism was a contributor to the death of Joyce Echaquan. Though she says that the death was accidental, because she did not receive the care she was entitled to because of racism. So does it seem as though the premier is accepting even that part of the report?

It's clear what the coroner said. It's clear in other reports [that] First Nations are living in systemic racism constantly. And he's tried to say it like it's an isolated event. But from what I hear, from what has been brought up now here and there by other members, other First Nations, there's a lot of situations like that happening.

When the big boss talks this way, it gives the chance to those kind of people to act like they will always be protected. And I understand that he doesn't want to recognize the systemic racism, but it's clear everywhere. It's clear for a lot of organizations. It's clear for different reports, different commissions. And even the coroner now says that … if [Echaquan] was not a First Nation woman, she would get all the services, the health services, that she was entitled to.

More and more First Nations [people] are talking about it. They feel like now they're being listened to. That's the effect of what Joyce Echaquan left behind.- Constant Awashish, grand chief of Atikamekw Nation 

The coroner said that if Joyce Echaquan had been white, she would not have died. This wouldn't have happened to her. But the coroner also says that if it wasn't for her courage to actually record the racism, the abuse she was getting in the hospital, and to make that public … we wouldn't have known about this. And so what impact has all this had on your community?

Like you said, it took her a lot of courage. And I think this courage gave people empowerment and gave them also courage to denounce that kind of situation. And since then, I think more and more are coming up, are coming forward, to talk about the situations that are similar, the situations where they feel uncomfortable, where they're being mistreated or they're being called names. And more and more First Nations [people] are talking about it. They feel like now they're being listened to. That's the effect of what Joyce Echaquan left behind. It's this positive effect.

And I think, too, non-Indigenous people, for a long time ... couldn't comprehend or couldn't believe it, or were not sure about it. Like, I think it's a natural reflex from anybody. It doesn't matter where you're from. I think most of the time, people need to see to believe. And that's what she contributed.

When I talk to non-First Nations [people] here and now, everybody … wants more justice. They want to know more about what happened to First Nations, why they are in this situation. Why we, for many years, for many decades, we taught First Nations in a different way — like stereotypes, bad things about them, all those different things that have been put in the public [imagination] about First Nations. 

Now people want to comprehend why. Why are we thinking like that? We are neighbours. We're so close to each other, but we don't know each other. I think that's what Joyce Echaquan contributed, is this awakening. And people are really realizing that we share so many values, common values. And now why are we not investing in those common values and creating something better for the future?

Do you think that despite what the premier is saying, that … a lot of Quebecers are starting to realize what is happening, the racism that exists towards Indigenous people?

I think we need to name the cause the way it has to be named, which is systemic racism. And now we see the result. And the result is the people being racist against the First Nations [people]. 

That's the kind of message that the premier of Quebec … doesn't want to admit.

Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from CBC Montreal. Interview produced by Kevin Robertson. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. 

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