Investigations launched after Atikamekw woman records Quebec hospital staff uttering slurs before her death

As she lay dying in a Joliette, Que., hospital bed, an Atikamekw woman clicked her phone on and broadcast a Facebook Live video appearing to show her being insulted and sworn at by hospital staff.

Joyce Echaquan’s death on Monday prompted an immediate outcry from her home community of Manawan, about 250 kilometres north of Montreal, and has spurred unusually quick and decisive action on the part of the provincial government.

The mother of seven’s death will be the subject of a coroner’s inquiry and an administrative probe, the Quebec government said today.

And a nurse who was involved in her treatment has been dismissed.

Echaquan’s relatives told Radio-Canada she was admitted to the hospital on Saturday with stomach pain, had a history of heart problems and felt she was being given too much morphine.

In the video viewed by CBC News, the 37-year-old is heard screaming in distress and repeatedly calling for help.

Eventually, her video picks up the voices of staff members. One hospital staff member tells her, “You’re stupid as hell.”

WATCH | Video captured in hospital contains disturbing images and sounds: 

Investigations have been launched in Quebec after an Indigenous woman records hospital staff uttering slurs before her death. 0:48

Another is heard saying Echaquan made bad life choices and asking her what her children would say if they saw her in that state.

Mary Hannaburg, vice-president of Quebec Native Women, said the video is a “very hard thing to hear and to listen to.”

“The statements that are made are not going to be tolerated. Those are of a racist nature,” she said. “We will not tolerate racism in any given form toward Indigenous women.”

At a news conference about COVID-19 on Tuesday afternoon, Quebec Premier François Legault said the situation was “not acceptable” and that one of the nurses involved had been fired.

WATCH | Legault says what happened to Joyce Echaquan is ‘not acceptable’:

Quebec Premier François Legault said that one of the nurses involved had been laid off. But he said systemic racism isn’t a problem in the province. 0:52

When asked if the incident was an indication of systemic racism, something Legault has steadfastly denied despite evidence to the contrary, he maintained that it was not.

“I really don’t think that we have this kind of way of dealing with First Nations people in our hospitals in Quebec. Yes, there is some racism in Quebec. We’re working on that,” he said, referring to an anti-racism committee he set up this summer.

Echaquan’s death comes only days before the anniversary of the Viens report, the result of a commission into the mistreatment of Indigenous people in the province.

The report found it is “impossible to deny” Indigenous people in Quebec are victims of “systemic discrimination” in accessing public services, including health-care services.

Ghislain Picard, head of the Assembly of First Nations Quebec-Labrador, said what unfolded at the hospital is part of “too long of a series of dramas experienced by Indigenous women in public services.”

WATCH | Indigenous services minister calls out the systemic and overt racism: 

Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller calls out the systemic and overt racism seen in the video Joyce Echaquan filmed from her hospital bed before her death. 3:01

“I don’t know if she was a victim of abuse, but I do know that she was a victim of racism by the nurses who had to care for her,” he said.

“We know this because there is a video of this tragedy, and you can clearly hear the nurses insulting Joyce because she is Atikamekw, because she is Indigenous.”

Vigils planned

Picard made the comments at a news conference where he announced his organization’s own action plan to fight racism. He said the Quebec government has failed to follow through on its commitment to the Viens report, and he couldn’t wait any longer.

“Racism is present as it is everywhere in public services, hospitals, in police services, in youth centres, even in our schools,” he said.

More than a dozen vigils are planned for Echaquan on Tuesday evening, including one in Joliette, about 70 kilometres north of Montreal. An online fundraising campaign has also been launched to support her children.

Ghislain Picard, chief of the Assembly of First Nations Quebec-Labrador, says Echaquan’s death was an example of the discrimination faced by Indigenous people. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

Lois Shecapio, who lives in Montreal and is from the Cree community of Mistissini, plans to attend. She said it’s important for her that this is not treated like an isolated case.

“I want to make it known that there is mistreatment from health-care workers,” said Shecapio via Facebook Messenger.

“[I want to see] that there is something done about what happened to Joyce. Ignorance and being treated as unimportant does exist in hospitals.”

WATCH | Carolyn Bennett says video is ‘gut-wrenching’: 

Crown-Indigenous Services Minister Carolyn Bennett says the video Joyce Echequan filmed from her hospital bed before her death is “gut-wrenching.” 2:46

A spokesperson for Sylvie D’Amours, Quebec’s minister responsible for Indigenous affairs, said the coroner’s investigation, as well as a separate investigation by the local health authority, will help determine the circumstances leading up to her death.

Regardless of the outcome of those inquiries, the spokesperson said, “the words heard are unacceptable and intolerable.”

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