If Joyce Echaquan were white, she would still be alive, Quebec coroner says

·5 min read
Coroner Géhane Kamel held back tears at one point as she explained her findings on the death of Joyce Echaquan during a news conference in Trois-Rivières, Que., on Tuesday. She concluded the Atikamekw woman would be alive today if she were white.  (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada - image credit)
Coroner Géhane Kamel held back tears at one point as she explained her findings on the death of Joyce Echaquan during a news conference in Trois-Rivières, Que., on Tuesday. She concluded the Atikamekw woman would be alive today if she were white. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada - image credit)

The Quebec coroner who presided over a three-week inquiry into the death of Joyce Echaquan said she believes the Atikamekw woman would still be alive today if she were white.

Echaquan, a mother of seven, died on Sept. 28, 2020, shortly after recording herself as health-care staff in a hospital north of Montreal hurled racist remarks at her.

Her death and the footage leading up to it sparked outrage and protests, as well as calls for the province to acknowledge systemic racism.

After her report into Echaquan's death was released on Friday, coroner Géhane Kamel met with reporters in Trois-Rivières, Que., to explain her findings.

She concluded that racism played a role in Echaquan's death and that her death was not from natural causes but "accidental" because she did not receive the care she was entitled to.

Asked by a reporter in French if she thought Echaquan would still be alive today if she were white, Kamel replied: "Je pense que oui," or "I think so."

Echaquan's loved ones, who held a news conference of their own on Tuesday, agree.

"Joyce died," her husband Carol Dubé said before pausing for several seconds, "because she was Indigenous."

Dubé was accompanied by his children, Echaquan's parents, the family's lawyer, and Constant Awashish, the grand chief of the Atikamekw Nation.

Dubé thanked the coroner for her work, adding that there were several lies and contradictions during some of the inquiry's testimony, making it difficult for the family.

"Our healing will come through truth," he said. "And today, a small [part] of that truth finally sees the light of day."

The family's lawyer said they will soon file a lawsuit, with the details to come over the next few days.

They also plan to file complaints with the province's college of physicians, order of nurses and the human rights commission.

WATCH | Echaquan died because she was Indigenous, husband says:

'System imprinted with prejudice'

In her report, Kamel concluded Echaquan's death could have been prevented with better care from staff at the hospital in Joliette, Que.

"Although this may be difficult to hear, it is a system imprinted with prejudice and biases that contributed to [health-care staff] not taking the situation seriously," Kamel said Tuesday.

She also said that Echaquan was "infantilized" and labelled as a manipulative drug abuser, despite there being no evidence of this.

Kamel said the inquiry was a "difficult but necessary" process, and some of the testimony "shook her on a human level."

"Through her death, Joyce left us an extremely important legacy," Kamel said while fighting back tears. "It would be extremely sad if we learned nothing from her death."

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Echaquan died of pulmonary edema.

Kamel's report notes that Echaquan's care was affected because medical staff assumed she was suffering from withdrawal, which turned out to be untrue.

Premier continues denial of systemic racism

Kamel also issued several recommendations, the top one being that the Quebec government must recognize the existence of systemic racism within its institutions.

"Systemic racism doesn't imply that each individual that is part of this system is racist. It implies that the system — either through prejudices that are tolerated, reprehensible acts or its inaction — contributes to trivializing and marginalizing Indigenous communities," Kamel said during the news conference.

"Once my observations are made and my recommendations are sent to the different [provincial] ministries and organizations, it is up to them to decide if they'll seize this opportunity for a dialogue."

On Tuesday, Premier François Legault once again denied the existence of systemic racism, reiterating a position he has held onto for more than a year.

Legault said the definition of systemic racism that he agrees with is different than the one used by Kamel.

Dany Pilote/Radio-Canada
Dany Pilote/Radio-Canada

The premier said as far as he's concerned, systemic racism would have to be organizational, in the form of directives coming from people in positions of authority that support racist policies.

Using the province's health-care system as an example, Legault said the behaviour of staff or people in management doesn't mean there is a system in place to discriminate against Indigenous people.

"For me, a system is coming from upstairs, coming from the top people, and I don't see this in the health-care network," he said.

Legault also said that systemic racism existed in Quebec when residential schools were in place but that he doesn't see any evidence of it now.

He once again urged Quebecers not to get bogged down with definitions and to agree that racism — systemic or not — exists in Quebec and must be dealt with.

"Yes, there is is prejudice and discrimination and racism, and we need all Quebecers to work together to fight it," the premier said.

Within the regional health board that oversees the hospital where Echaquan died, 12,000 employees have received at least three hours of cultural safety training, Legault said.

He also highlighted — as proof the province wants to improve the health care Indigenous patients receive — that some members of the Atikamekw community have been given prominent roles on the health board.

In the wake of Echaquan's death, Atikamekw leaders in Quebec drafted Joyce's Principle, a set of recommendations meant to guarantee health care for Indigenous people, free of discrimination, by having it enshrined in provincial law.

But the province has refused to draft legislation that included tenets from Joyce's Principle because they also referenced systemic racism.

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