Joyce Echaquan’s Untimely Death
What It Means for Systemic Racism in Quebec
By Maija Baroni
George Floyd—a name that has been immortalized since his violent death in May 2020—has become a symbol of the United States’ shameful history. His death was cataclysmic to what was arguably the country’s most explosive expression of frustration and anger since the Civil Rights movement. Systemic racism, which has continuously disadvantaged and destroyed the lives of minorities in the United States, is being put to trial by incensed citizens
The movement did not stop in the USA, however. 2020 has seen a universal outrage and call to action over injustices which continue to prevail in a supposedly sensitive and educated society.
Many Canadians support the Black Lives Matter Movement by spreading awareness on social media, speaking out at protests, and making monetary donations. But there seems to be an unspoken agreement that this is an American problem, the connotation being that Canadians live up to their reputation as the kind, multicultural, and benevolent northern neighbours.
The death of Joyce Echaquan, a 37-year-old loving mother of seven and member of the Atikamekw Nation in southwestern Quebec, devastatingly proves otherwise. The Indigenous community has spoken out since, emphasizing that her death must not be dismissed as an irregular, freakish anomaly.
Ms. Echaquan checked herself into the Centre Hospitalier de Lanaudière in Joliette, Quebec, after experiencing severe stomach pains. Instead of receiving urgent care, Joyce was ridiculed, demeaned, and insulted by staff members. She began a Facebook live stream from her hospital bed fearing the discrimination, and perhaps her imminent death, would be overlooked. That video allowed watchers to follow along as the nurses in the background taunted and mocked her in French, while Joyce screamed in agony. Joyce died shortly after, on September 28th, 2020.
Her death has placed a spotlight on the lengthy, unlawful discrimination embedded into Canadian history and culture. It confirms what Indigenous communities have been screaming for years, which is that Indigenous people in Quebec suffer from the presence of systemic racism. The health care system specifically; a system which is fundamentally designed to keep Canadians safe and healthy; has, time and time again, failed Indigenous individuals in every way, to the point where such inhumane behaviour has become a standard expectation for those seeking medical attention.
Yvonne Boyer, a Metis Canadian senator, notes that “for every Joyce Echaquan that comes forward, there’s a hundred that have not been heard.” Indigenous patients are commonly stereotyped, or sometimes left to die, when desperately trying to receive treatment. Frederick Edwards, a Cree man from Manitoba, voiced his numerous horrific experiences with hospitals, one example being when a triage nurse immediately told him to shut up and sit down in an emergency room. “I don’t like hospitals because of so many bad experiences,” says Edwards, “This is just one of them”.
Though the hospital’s staff is evidently to blame, the Quebec government's inaction cannot be overlooked: Premier François Legault still denies the existence of systemic racism in the province, claiming that “[though] what happened to Ms. Echaquan is totally unacceptable…[it] does not mean that Quebec is racist”.
Apologies, without the corresponding and necessary action, seem to be all that officials have to offer. As of October 17th 2020, the staff involved have lost their jobs, but there has been no update as to whether they have lost their licenses to practice; they may still have the right to treat others after Joyce’s untimely death.
Ultimately, apologies mean nothing unless followed by meaningful change, yet Quebec currently has no concrete efforts to show. On October 3rd, 2020, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau met with Indigenous chiefs to discuss the issue of systemic racism. Only time will tell whether the promises made in Legault’s office will lead to productive results. Chief Paul-Émile Ottawa of the Atikamekw Nation of Manawan clarifies: “Get back to me in a year and I might have a better answer. Joyce Echaquan’s death is a reminder of the gulf that remains between us.”
Racism is not worse in the United States than it is in Canada; it is instead merely better concealed, which means we will have to work even harder to bring it to the surface in order to eliminate it. The first step in healing is acceptance. Quebecers and Canadians need to fully acknowledge the situation at hand so that no other minority or Indigenous person once again suffers the same horrific death Joyce Echaquan did. If we continue to deny the presence of systemic racism in Canada, we continue to deny the basic human rights of our Indigenous & minority communities.