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Health

Quebec Will Launch a Public Inquiry Into the Death of Indigenous Woman Joyce Echaquan

Why Global Citizens Should Care
Systemic racism leads to inequitable access to health care and preventable deaths. The United Nations’ Global Goal 3 calls countries to ensure good health and well-being for everyone, everywhere. You can join us and take action on related issues here

The province of Quebec will be launching a public inquest into the death of Joyce Echaquan, a 37-year-old Indigenous woman who filmed herself being insulted by hospital staff hours before she died on Sept. 28. 

The announcement came on Oct. 3, five days after Echaquan’s death, from the province’s chief coroner Pascale Descary.

Echaquan, a mother of seven, was admitted to a hospital in Joliette, Quebec for stomach cramps on Sept. 26, but ended up dying on her hospital bed two days later, shortly after sharing a Facebook livestream in which hospital staff can be heard uttering racist slurs against her.

The footage has sparked outrage across Canada. Over the weekend, protestors took to the streets in Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver, and other cities to demand justice for Echaquan and to voice concerns about systemic racism in Canada’s health care system.

“Every day in Quebec and Canada, Indigenous men, women, and children are victims of contempt and racism in the health care system,” Echaquan’s family and community members said in a statement released hours after Descary’s announcement. “Joyce Echaquan’s case at Joliette Hospital is certainly not unique, but rather the tip of the iceberg.” 

“The public inquest must provide answers that will initiate change in how health care services are delivered to Indigenous people,” they added.

Indigenous leaders and activists have emphasised that the disturbing circumstances surrounding Echaquan’s death are not an isolated incident. There have been several cases in which racial bias has prevented Indigenous people from receiving timely and adequate care, sometimes resulting in unnecessary death.

In 2008, 45-year-old First Nations man Brian Sinclair sat in his wheelchair for more than 34 hours in an emergency room, waiting to be seen. By the time medical staff checked on him, he had already been dead for several hours from a treatable bladder infection, an autopsy later revealed. 

The inquiry into his death found that medical staff had made several false assumptions about Sinclair that prevented him from being treated, including the assumption that he was drunk, had been discharged previously and had nowhere to go, or was homeless and had come to avoid the cold.

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Echaquan’s treatment by hospital staff also drew attention to recent allegations that British Columbia emergency room staff had been playing a “game” called “The Price Is Right,” in which they would guess the blood alcohol levels of patients, most of them Indigenous.

This recurring negligence is not the only barrier preventing Indigenous people from receiving equitable access to health care. 

Public health messaging is often lacking in Indigenous communities, which contributes to negative impacts, such as higher rates of commercial tobacco use, as well as pre-existing conditions. 

Many remote communities also have limited access to health care services, forcing people to travel far distances to be seen by doctors. This was the case for Echaquan, who travelled 184 kilometres (114 miles) from her home in the Manawan community to Joliette. 

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Poor health and limited access to care are further exacerbated by Indigenous communities’ extraordinarily high poverty rates. A 2019 study found that almost half of Canada’s Indigenous children live in poverty, a rate that is three times higher than the national poverty rate reported in 2016.

In a statement on Sunday marking the annual day commemorating missing and murdered Indigenous women in Canada, Quebec Premier François Legault referenced Echaquan’s death and “the racism that she was subjected to.” But he has said that there is no systemic racism in the province.

Echawan’s husband Carol Dubé disagrees.

“I am convinced my wife died because systemic racism contaminated the Joliette hospital,” Dubé said in his address to federal government officials in Ottawa on Oct. 1. “She spent her final days in agony, surrounded by people who held her in contempt, people who were supposed to protect her.”