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Community hopes for answers from inquest into death of Atikamekw woman who filmed Quebec nurses mocking her

A Quebec coroner will begin hearing testimony and explanations as to why Joyce Echaquan died in hospital last September after being admitted with stomach pains, and why the Atikamekw woman had to endure racist remarks and insults during her final moments.

The three-week inquest into the 37-year old’s death gets underway in Trois-Rivières, Que., on Thursday. 

Carol Dubé, Echaquan’s husband and the father of their seven children, is expected testify. 

“I don’t know what is waiting for us yet — what we will learn,” Dubé told reporters ahead of his testimony Thursday morning. “I will listen to and analyze all testimonies and try to understand.” 

Dubé was surrounded by his children, Echaquan’s parents, and elders of the Atikamekw community of Manawan, who held a private ceremony outside the courthouse earlier in the morning. 

“I feel ready. I feel confident, and my family is here — ready. Our children are with us, nervous, but confident,” said Dubé. 

Echaquan died on Sept. 28, 2020, shortly after posting a video online showing nurses barraging her with racist insults, as she cried out in pain from her hospital bed in Joliette, Que., 75 kilometres north of Montreal.

The family’s lawyer, Patrick Martin-Ménard, hopes the inquest will help the family better understand what happened that day and hopes the testimony will shed light on the systemic issues within the province’s health-care system. 

“I think there will be a lot of evidence that will come out that should give birth to political will to affect actual change,” said Martin-Ménard.

“Instead of putting whatever report comes out of this on a shelf, I hope the politicians from all horizons will pay attention to it.” 

‘Like ripping off a Band-Aid’ 

Bringing her story back to the forefront “is going to be hard” for many people, said Sabrina Paton, a co-ordinator at the Lanaudière Native Friendship Centre in Joliette.

“It’s going to be like ripping off a Band-Aid — and the wound is not healed yet. Of course it’s not healed.”

Paton said the popularity of the new Indigenous-led health clinic at the Friendship Centre, which opened in October 2020, shows how important it is to offer a safe space for Atikamekw patients. 

“A lot of people are still very scared of seeking services [at the hospital],” said Paton.

carol dube joyce echaquan
Echaquan died on Sept. 28, 2020, shortly after posting a video online showing nurses barraging her with racist insults, as she cried out in pain from her hospital bed in Joliette, Que. (Facebook)

Systemic racism not acknowledged by province

Constant Awashish, the Grand Chief of the Atikamekw First Nation, says there are many unanswered questions about Echaquan’s death which will hopefully be addressed by Coroner Géhane Kamel.

“How things happened exactly, what was the exact cause of the death, was something done that wasn’t supposed to be done — those are all questions we hope will get answered,” said Awashish.

He also hopes the coroner will acknowledge that there is a problem of systemic racism within the health-care system, something Premier François Legault has refused to do so far.

Echaquan’s death had people across the province demanding the government address the problem. It also spurred a series of changes in Quebec’s public policies.

The minister responsible for Indigenous Affairs at the time, Sylvie d’Amours, was replaced just weeks after Echaquan’s death.

joyce echaquan s mother
Echaquan’s mother, Diane Dubé, seen taking part in a vigil in memory of her daughter in Joliette, Que., last September, is set to testify at the coroner’s inquest into Echaquan’s death. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)

Her successor, Ian Lafrenière, has since implemented some changes to public policies, including a $15-million investment announced last November to improve cultural safety awareness among public employees.

The regional health board responsible for the Joliette hospital, the CISSS de Lanaudière, replaced its director in December 2020.

Daniel Castonguay had publicly stated he was unaware of any racist behaviour among his staff, despite accounts by several Atikamekw people to the contrary during the Viens commission, a provincial inquiry into the discrimination faced by Indigenous people.

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