Que. nurse fired, coroner to investigate after dying Indigenous woman taunted in hospital

MONTREAL — A nurse has been fired after an Indigenous woman who was dying Monday night in hospital was subjected to degrading remarks, Quebec’s premier said Tuesday.

The Quebec coroner’s office confirmed it will investigate the circumstances surrounding the death of Joyce Echaquan, a mother of seven who had gone to the hospital in Joliette, Que., northeast of Montreal, complaining of stomach pains.

Before the Atikamekw woman’s death, she filmed herself from her hospital bed while she was in clear distress and pleaded for help.

Toward the end of the video, two female hospital staff can be seen entering her room and are heard making insulting comments, saying she’s “stupid as hell,” that she’s only good for sex and better off dead.

Amid protests from Echaquan, a staff member tells her she made poor choices and asks what her children would think to see her in that state.

“That’s why I came here,” Echaquan can be heard replying quietly.

The video circulated widely on the internet, prompting widespread indignation and a call from the Quebec chief of the Assembly of First Nations, Ghislain Picard, for the government to address a culture of racism.

“A coroner’s inquest should not be an opportunity for the government to shirk its responsibilities,” Picard said Tuesday. He made the comments during a virtual news conference, during which he presented his organization’s plan to address racism and discrimination in the province.

“A coroner’s report will not change anything about the racism displayed by nurses. It is a question of attitude and a question of culture.”

The Council of the Atikamekw Nation said discrimination in public services is unfortunately still far too prevalent and the video shot by the deceased woman “reveals disturbing condescension and racist remarks” from staff.

“It is unfortunate that in 2020 such behaviours can still occur,” Grand Chief Constant Awashish said in a statement. “It is everyone’s responsibility to denounce them, especially in the context of health services and whose ethics should protect us from the discomfort of racism.”

Verna Polson, the leader of the Anoshnabeg Nation, said the video left her angry.

“I am also sad at the thought that her children this morning no longer have a mother,” she said Tuesday at the news conference with Picard. “This systemic racism that exists today in Quebec, we, the Aboriginal women, live it every day.”

Legault offered his condolences to the family Tuesday in Quebec City, confirming a nurse at the hospital had been fired. And while he admitted racism exists in the province, he would not qualify the situation as an example of systemic racism.

“What happened is totally unacceptable,” Legault said. “There will be two inquiries and the nurse did something unacceptable and she has been fired.”

Legault said in addition to the coroner, the regional health authority will investigate the death.

In Ottawa, Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller said his thoughts were with the family and community members.

“The best case scenario is this person died at the hands of a racist and the worst case scenario is much worse, it makes you think about criminality and it’s why we need to get a full inquest into what happened.”

Miller said what happened wasn’t an isolated event.

“What is gut-wrenching about this, is someone who is in their most vulnerable and they’re dying, having heard racist words expressed towards them,” Miller said.

“I can only imagine the impact that can have on Indigenous communities and it’s part of a pattern that’s existing and we have to eliminate that pattern, we have to keep fighting against that pattern.”

– This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 29, 2020. 

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