VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) — Gitsxan Elder Michael Harris says the way Joyce Echaquan was treated as she lay dying in a Montreal-area hospital shows how “rampant racism” plagues healthcare in this country.
He was one of about 150 people who shut down the intersection of Commercial Drive and Broadway in Vancouver Saturday, in one of many protests demanding “Justice for Joyce” held across Canada.
Echaquan, an Atikamekw mother of seven, filmed the racist abuse she was subjected to by hospital staff before while she was pleading for help before she died Monday. The two workers caught demeaning, taunting, and degrading Echequan after she was admitted for stomach pain have been fired. Echequan’s family plans to launch a series of legal actions, including a lawsuit against the hospital, as well as complaints to the province’s human rights commission and police. The government of Quebec has ordered a coroner’s inquest into “the causes and circumstances” of Echequan’s death.
Harris spoke at the Vancouver rally to denounce hospital personnel’s cruel treatment of Echaquan when she was seeking help and was in their care.
“The last words that Joyce heard were that she was a slut, and that she wasn’t good for anything. She died with those words in her ear, no one should ever do that,” Harris says.
“She’s First Nations, she’s a woman, she’s a mother. She’s not a slut. The nurses called her a whore, a prostitute — she was not. Those are such hurtful words to call any life-giver, any woman. It’s just very despicable.”
Harris says the way Echaquan was treated is just one stark example of anti-Indigenous racism in healthcare.
“There needs to be justice for Joyce, and not only for Joyce but for every person that goes in for healthcare, whether it’s at a clinic, a doctor’s office, or a hospital, or any kind of care facility,” he says.
“This is fairly rampant across Canada, and we’re saying this needs to stop.”
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In B.C., Harris says he knows of Elders who have been left languishing in hospital hallways, and Indigenous people who have had their concerns dismissed or healthcare denied after being stereotyped as addicts.
He points to the treatment of Indigenous patients in hospital emergency rooms as one example.
“There was a hospital here that the nurses and doctors were making bets, when a First Nations person came in, about whether they have alcohol on their breath or not,” he explains.
“They turned First Nations into a game. How disrespectful.”
Investigation into anti-Indigenous racism in healthcare already underway in B.C.
News of that “game” where staff would guess the blood-alcohol levels of patients prompted then Health Minister Adrian Dix to order an independent investigation into anti-Indigenous racism in the province’s healthcare system.
Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, a former judge, current law professor, and member of Saskatchewan’s Muskeg Lake Cree Nation, was appointed to lead the investigation in June.
She says she was “horrified” when she saw how Echaquan was mistreated.
“Seeing the racism, the callousness, the disregard for the life of an Indigenous mom, and the fact that she’s in an emergency room seeking care — in that context the interaction was so dreadful,” she says.
“It’s haunting and it’s upsetting. Some of the words that were used, and the treatment that she received — although it is is an extreme case because it’s live-streamed — does reflect some of the things I’ve found as I’ve been investigating and reviewing anti-Indigenous racism in British Columbia. The explicit and implicit views and attitudes about Indigenous people can shape how people get treated and sometimes result in people being treated as lesser, and being blamed and held responsible for their health conditions when in fact they’re there seeking healthcare like any other person would be.”
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Turpel-Lafond says more than 550 cases have been reported to her since the probe was launched.
“That was before this case, this national case,” she points out.
“There is an incredible need to tell these stories and I think what we’ve seen recently with the tragic death of this mom in Quebec — there’s going to be an incredible need for people to talk about what’s going on with them in the system.”
Turpel-Lafond says when cases like Echaquan are publicized fear and reluctance to seek medical care can be compounded.
“It’s also very triggering, and we need to be mindful of that for Indigenous people that are seeking care. They will be very triggered by this and they will need to make sure that emergency rooms — even in British Columbia — are very sensitive to the fact that they’re going to feel very worried about the care that they’re going to get. So we need to make sure that we have a lot of empathy, and support for Indigenous people coming into emergency rooms.”
One of the things Turpel-Lafond says she looking into is the ways in which racism can deter people from seeking or accessing care.
“Something I’ve been inquiring into in B.C. is what I see as a reluctance, often, by Indigenous people to get the care they need, and to follow up on the care that they require because they don’t feel safe, they don’t feel understood, they feel there’s discrimination,” she says.
We’re dealing with two epidemics here in British Columbia, we have the COVID epidemic and we have the opioid epidemic. And we have all the normal, regular, health crises that people have. So it’s absolutely essential that Indigenous people feel safe, and get the care they need.”
The deadline for Turpel-Lafond’s report is Dec. 31. She says there may be a slight delay due to the B.C.’s snap election, but otherwise, the dissolution of the provincial government has not affected her work.
With files from The Canadian Press