Content warning: First Nations readers are warned that the following article contains images of deceased persons and discusses racism.
The death of an Atikamekw woman who livestreamed a Quebec hospital worker’s racist insults in the last moments of her life has left the province reeling, with some calling Joyce Echaquan the province’s “own George Floyd.”
The 37-year-old mother of seven died Monday in a Joliette hospital , a three-hour drive south from her home in the First Nations reserve of Manawan. Shortly before her death, she posted a live video on Facebook in which she is seen tied to her gurney. Out of the camera’s view, at least two health-care workers can be heard uttering racist slurs and dismissing Echaquan’s worries that the medication she was being given could aggravate a known heart condition for which she had had a pacemaker since 2014.
“Come get me!” Echaquan screams.
“You’re dumb as hell,” one staff workers tells her in French. “That’s better dead,” she laters mutters, calling Echaquan “better to fuck than for anything else.”
“And we’re the ones paying for it,” the worker adds, as another worker tells Echaquan she “made bad choices” and “should think about [her] kids.”
Her death was recorded that same evening.
Anger and grief
Quebec Premier François Legault told the press Tuesday afternoon that one of the nurses heard in the video had been fired, calling her behaviour “totally unacceptable.” Joyce’s mum Diane Echaquan told HuffPost Quebec, however, that she won’t be satisfied until the people she says are responsible for her daughter’s death are brought to justice.
“One nurse was fired, she said. The others are still there.”
Outraged by Echaquan’s fate, hundreds of people, mostly Indigenous, held a candlelight vigil in front of the Joliette hospital Tuesday evening. Calls of “Justice for Joyce” also echoed online, as those who couldn’t make it to the event were invited to livestream images of their candles from home.
Chantal Chartrand, a family friend who organised the vigil, told HuffPost that although she didn’t know Joyce personally, she felt compelled to do something to help. Chartrand is also behind a GoFundMe page that has raised more than $90,000 for the grieving Echaquan family.
“As an Indigenous woman and as a mum, I knew in my heart I had to,” the Innu from Mani-Utenam, Que. said. Like many Indigenous people, she said she also experienced racism in Quebec’s health-care system during and after a “traumatic event” she suffered as a teenager.
She, too, thinks it isn’t enough to punish the staff that can be heard using openly racist comments in the video. “Someone should have said. ‘enough’. All those present are guilty,” Chartrand said.
A cousin of Joyce, Karine Echaquan, told HuffPost that the Manawan Band Council has helped the family lodge a complaint against the hospital. Quebec’s coroner’s office announced it will investigate the circumstances of the death.
The story echoed all the way to Ottawa, with Minister of Indigenous Services Marc Miller and Minister of Crown Indigenous Relations Carolyn Bennett both calling for the events that lead to Echaquan’s death to be “fully investigated.”
The local health board said Tuesday in a statement that the discourse held by hospital staff in the video was “unacceptable.” “[The Centre intégré de santé et de services sociaux de Lanaudière] won’t tolerate any such behaviour from members of its staff. The internal investigation is ongoing, and at this time, one nurse has been fired,” it wrote in French on behalf of the hospital.
As of Wednesday morning, none of Joyce’s family members had been contacted by any of the elected officials who publicly denounced the treatment she received, her mother told HuffPost.
Calls to end systemic racism
Many Indigenous groups reacted to Echaquan’s death with calls to end institutional and systemic racism, with one community advisor calling Joyce “Quebec’s own George Floyd or Breonna Taylor.” “But instead of police, it is racist hospital staff who are perpetuating violence on our people,” Janis Qavavauq-Bibeau from the Native Women’s Shelter of Montreal said in a press release.
“Racism and discrimination towards First Nations are very much present in Quebec and the passing of an Atikamekw woman yesterday at the Joliette hospital illustrates this sad reality that a large majority of Quebecers recognise,” said Assembly of First Nations Quebec-Labrador (AFNQL) Chief Ghislain Picard in a written statement.
The AFNQL was coincidentally releasing its own action plan Tuesday to fight against racism and discrimination, after expressing disappointment at the provincial government’s slowness to institute changes.
Pressed about the issue during his presser, Premier Legault once again refused to acknowledge the existence of systemic racism in Quebec.
“There is racism in Quebec and we need to fight it. What that nurse said was racist,” he said. “But to think that every nurse or the entire health-care system would have had that reaction… Everybody will tell you that’s not the case.”
A protest “to mourn Joyce and demand an end to systemic racism” is expected to take place Saturday in downtown Montreal.