The Current

Relatives, experts call for accountability in wake of Joyce Echaquan's death

The cousin of an Indigenous woman who recorded health-care staff insulting her as she was dying in a Quebec hospital says firing the nurse who treated her relative is not enough.

Atikamekw woman recorded nurses insulting her as she lay dying in hospital

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

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The cousin of an Indigenous woman who recorded health-care staff insulting her as she was dying in a Quebec hospital says firing the nurse who treated her relative is not enough.

"We need to have more … respect for our nation," Alice Echaquan told The Current's Matt Galloway.

"Stand up together, all of us, and [say], that's enough. We are going to do something to stop the [racism]."

Joyce Echaquan, a 37-year-old Atikamekw woman from Manawan, Que., died on Monday — two days after being admitted with stomach pains to the Centre hospitalier de Lanaudière in Joliette, Que., about 70 kilometres north of Montreal and a three-hour drive from her community.

From the moment she arrived, the mother of seven began recording her experience, capturing staff members hurling insults and foul language toward her in a Facebook Live video. Joyce's relatives told Radio-Canada she had a history of heart problems and felt she was being given too much morphine. 

Her death is now the subject of a coroner's inquest, and two investigations by the local health authority — one that will examine how Joyce was treated, and another that will look at the hospital's practices.

The local health authority expressed shock and disappointment over the incident, but denied that there is systemic racism at the hospital — a sentiment that Quebec Premier François Legault echoed.

'My heart stopped,' says cousin

Alice said her cousin was a loving person, and like a sister to her. When she saw Joyce crying out in pain in her video from the hospital, she was "shocked."

She drove to the hospital to pick her up, but when she arrived she was told she couldn't see Joyce, and that a doctor would come see her later, Alice said. Eventually, a nurse approached her to ask what she was doing.

Alice Echaquan says people need to stand up against racism in the wake of her cousin Joyce's death. (Submitted by Alice Echaquan)

"She said, 'Oh, you don't know yet?' And I said, 'What?' And she says, 'She's died. She's died,'" Alice said. "And my heart stopped."

Alice said it's been hard to get Joyce off her mind, and that she can't eat or sleep. She said she is afraid to go back to the hospital, and that other relatives of hers have had experiences similar to Joyce's.

They aren't alone. 

"As Indigenous [doctors], we have people reaching out to us almost weekly ... with stories of mistreatment in the system," said Dr. Lisa Richardson, a mixed Anishinaabe physician and strategic lead in Indigenous health at the University of Toronto and Women's College Hospital.

As Indigenous [doctors], we have people reaching out to us almost weekly ... with stories of mistreatment in the system.- Dr. Lisa Richardson, mixed Anishinaabe physician

"And sometimes stories leading to misdiagnoses, oversights and deaths. Sometimes stories of a lack of dignity, outright racist treatment," Richardson told Galloway.

"It is commonplace, unfortunately."

Richardson said stories like Joyce's are upsetting to her not only as an Indigenous person, but as a health-care professional.

"When we are trained to provide care as the central component of all of our professions, whether it be in nursing or medicine or social work, how is it that this treatment, which is a basic lack of respect, is missing?"

'No more apologies,' says advocate

As upsetting as Joyce's story is, what happened to her is not new, said Mary Hannaburg, vice-president of Quebec Native Women, an organization that advocates for Indigenous women in the province.

The Manawan community's mistrust with the hospital in Joliette was documented during the Viens Commission, which looked into discrimination against Indigenous people in Quebec. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission also released numerous calls to action related to health care in 2015.

"So I don't understand, you know, how they can say, well, they don't know how to fix it. They don't know what to change," Hannaburg told The Current. "They know."

The first step, she said, is to stop denying that racism exists.

"All the work in this process that they like to call reconciliation has been done on one side," she said. 

"No more apologies. We need to see actions…. I'm tired of repeating myself. We are tired of repeating ourselves."

A vigil was held Tuesday in Joliette, following Echaquan's passing. A video that captured her being insulted and sworn at by the hospital staff attending to her has renewed longstanding concerns about the treatment of Indigenous people in the health-case system. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)

Richardson said she believes these types of incidents continue to happen to Indigenous people because there is not a co-ordinated, system-level mechanism for holding people or institutions accountable.

Preventative action also needs to be taken to help Indigenous people feel safe in the health-care system, she said. That includes hiring more Indigenous care providers, and having more Indigenous people in leadership roles.

"Indigenous peoples know how to respond and what their needs are. And we need to see Indigenous people guiding and leading these responses," Richardson said. 

"I think that we are getting to a place of change. One has to be hopeful. We can't afford not to be."

Written by Kirsten Fenn, with files from CBC News. Produced by Ines Colabrese, Idella Sturino and Isabelle Gallant.