The recent death of Joyce Echaquan is a tragic example of the systemic racism many Indigenous people face in healthcare settings across Canada, say activists and patients.
A video shot by the Atikamekw mother before her death shows two employees of the Joliette Hospital insulting her.
The images sparked widespread outrage. Quebec’s Chief Coroner, Pascale Descary, announced on Saturday that she will order the public inquiry as soon as possible.
Senator Yvonne Boyer, herself a member of the Métis Nation of Ontario, says she was not surprised by the tragedy.
“For every Joyce Echaquan that shows up, there are a hundred that haven’t been heard,” she said.
Frederick Edwards, a Cree from Manitoba, says he has faced racism and stereotypes throughout his life while trying to access health care.
In unbearable pain, he went to an emergency room in Winnigeg about seven years ago. He remembers being shocked when the triage nurse immediately told him to shut up and sit down. This treatment made him feel “like he was worthless.”
After long hours of waiting, a doctor ignored her symptoms. While he was still waiting, a doctor he had previously seen called him on the phone to tell him that the results of a previous blood test indicated that his health was in serious danger. He was rushed to another hospital and learned he was suffering from a ruptured gallbladder.
“I don’t like hospitals because of so many bad experiences,” says Edwards, a communications professional. It’s just one of them. “
According to Ms. Boyer, discrimination in the health care system is “pervasive” in every province and territory.
As an example, she cites lawsuits in Alberta, Saskatchewan and British Columbia by Indigenous women who allege they were forced or coerced into sterilization procedures.
Accounts from Aboriginal women in 2015 of forced sterilization in Saskatchewan led hundreds of others from across the country to tell similar stories. A report on tubal ligation in Saskatchewan concluded that racism existed in the health care system.
The issue of health care discrimination was also raised following the death of Brian Sinclair, a 45-year-old Aboriginal man who died of sepsis in 2008 after spending 34 hours in a Winnipeg hospital in his Wheelchair.
It was later learned that the staff believed it to be a homeless person or an intoxicated person. By the time the body was discovered, rigor mortis had already set in.
The inquest into the death made recommendations for changes to hospital triage protocols, but those close to Sinclair said that did not address the real problem: racism in health care.
Mary Jane Logan McCallum, member of the Munsee Delaware Nation in Ontario and co-author of a book on Mr. Sinclair’s death, says racism continues to be a significant barrier to Indigenous peoples’ access to appropriate health care . They fear that they will be confronted with stereotypes, that their symptoms will be ignored or that they will die without treatment.
“This is not a unique event for Indigenous peoples,” Ms. McCallum laments of Ms. Echaquan’s passing. Many Aboriginal people prepare to go to hospital with racism in mind. “
“A heartbreaking normality”
In Montreal, Nakuset, the executive director of the Native Women’s Shelter, testifies that situations like the one experienced by Ms. Echaquan are “heartbreakingly normal”.
Over the past 20 years, she says she has seen and heard countless cases of racism. For example, a Cree patient would have been told to seek treatment on a Mohawk reserve or an Inuit woman would have left a health care facility in tears after unsuccessfully seeking treatment for an addiction problem.
The phenomenon is so serious that the shelter has started sending support workers with patients to the hospital, in part to assist and document racist incidents, Nakuset said.
For his part, the Premier of Quebec, François Legault, who deemed the treatment of Ms. Echaquan “unacceptable”, has always maintained that systemic racism does not exist in Quebec.
Ms. Echaquan’s death came almost a year to the day after a public inquiry released 142 recommendations aimed at improving Aboriginal access to government services in Quebec. Quebec Minister responsible for Indigenous Affairs Sylvie’Amours said this week that several dozen of the recommendations in the Viens report had been implemented, but Nakuset and Senator Boyer doubt it.
According to them, there has been little real change in the health networks.
“How can we solve the problem [du racisme systémique] if you think it doesn’t exist, ”says Boyer.
She calls for clear standards for hospitals and penalties for those who violate them.
Nakuset, who staged a protest against systemic racism in downtown Montreal on Saturday, hopes Ms. Echaquan’s tragedy will be a turning point in the country.
She still believes in hope for change, but only on condition that Canadians from all walks of life demand it.
“The only way to make changes as a society is to come forward, because actions speak louder than words,” she emphasizes.