The Current

Arguing over what systemic racism means won't help those who face it every day, says political scientist

Quebec Premier François Legault has long insisted there is no system racism in his province, but an inquiry into the death of Atikamekw woman Joyce Echaquan draws a different conclusion.

Quebec premier, coroner at odds over existence of system racism in the province

Thousands of people took part in a rally in support of Joyce Echaquan in Trois-Rivieres, Que., this summer, demanding 'Justice for Joyce.' The Atikamekw woman died in a Quebec hospital last year after recording hospital staff using racial slurs against her. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

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The war of words over whether Quebec has a problem with systemic racism — asserted this week by the province's coroner, but rejected by its premier — has become "detrimental to addressing the real problem," says one political scientist.

"A lot of this battle is about words, but it's also about political will," said Daniel Béland, a political science professor and director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada.

"We need to move beyond that and to really work together ... to say we are proud of Quebec as a society, but we have a lot of challenges to face," he told The Current's Matt Galloway.

"It's our duty to make our society better, to improve our society, and in order to improve our society, we need to fight systemic racism."

On Tuesday, Quebec's coroner Géhane Kamel discussed the findings of her inquiry into the death of Joyce Echaquan, who died in a Quebec hospital last year after recording hospital staff using racial slurs against her. Kamel said that the Atikamekw woman's death could have been prevented, but appropriate care was denied to her based on "prejudice and biases that contributed to [health-care staff] not taking the situation seriously."

Joyce Echaquan died because she was Indigenous, husband says

1 year ago
Duration 3:49
Joyce Echaquan's husband, Carol Dubé, said Tuesday he believes his wife died because she was Indigenous. His comments echoed those made by Quebec coroner Géhane Kamel, who said at a Tuesday news conference in Trois-Rivières, Que., that she believed Echaquan would still be alive today if she were white.

Asked by a reporter in French if she thought Echaquan would still be alive today if she were white, Kamel replied: "Je pense que oui," or "I think so."

Among her recommendations, Kamel urged the province to recognize systemic racism within its institutions. She said the term does not mean that each individual in an institution is a racist, but that the system itself is built on, and perpetuates prejudices and racism experienced by those who access it.

Premier François Legault said Tuesday that the circumstances around Echaquan's death were "terrible" and "unacceptable," but he disagreed that there is systemic racism within Quebec institutions, arguing he subscribes to a different definition of the term.

"For me, a system is coming from upstairs, coming from the top people. And I don't see this in the health-care network," said Legault, who has long insisted there is no systemic racism in the province. 

Symbols and words matter: Béland 

Béland said Legault might not want to contradict his own previous statements, but that there could be another "deeper reason."

"One of his legacies as a premier will be to make sure that Quebecers are proud of themselves, they are proud of Quebec," Béland said. 

"For him … you cannot recognize systemic racism and be proud of Quebec at the same time."

Quebec coroner says Joyce Echaquan would still be alive if she was white

1 year ago
Duration 2:04
A Quebec coroner says if Joyce Echaquan had been white, she'd still be alive today. The Indigeous woman died in a Quebec hospital just over a year ago. But Quebec Premier François Legault is refusing to accept one of the coroner's key recommendations.

He argued that someone can love and be proud of their society, but also "recognize that there is a dark side to it and that, you know, racism is something that is institutionalized, that it's something that is baked in."

Béland said Kamel's call to acknowledge systemic racism shows that words and symbols do matter, adding that he hopes the Quebec government acts on her recommendations.

Senator Michèle Audette said the semantic debate may leave Indigenous communities disillusioned, especially when they live with the impact of racism every day. 

"We have so many examples to share to the premier," said Audette, who is Innu, from Quebec and served as a commissioner on the Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.

Looking to Quebec's provincial elections next year, Audette hopes communities will come together to "rock the vote," referring to high Indigenous voter turnout in the 2015 federal election.

"They voted because they wanted change. So why don't we do something that could be the same here?" she said.

Written by Padraig Moran, with files from CBC News. Produced by Julie Crysler, Paul MacInnis, and Ines Colabrese.

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