JOLIETTE — Carol Dubé shook with emotion as he tried to explain what his wife meant to their family and why it will now pursue sweeping legal action over her death.
Joyce Echaquan was a kind woman who loved the little things in life, Dubé told reporters Friday, and yet she died without dignity, surrounded not by her family but rather hospital staff that disparaged her as she pleaded for help.
“I am convinced my wife died because systemic racism contaminated the Joliette hospital,” Dubé said through tears. “Her seven children will never see her again.”
Echaquan, a 37-year-old Atikamekw woman from Manawan, died Monday at the Centre hospitalier de Lanaudière.
In her last moments, she managed to record derogatory and insulting remarks made to her by hospital staff and broadcast them on Facebook. She had been hospitalized for stomach pains days earlier.
Her death has sparked outrage across the country and in Quebec, where pressure has mounted for the provincial government to address the issue of systemic racism toward Indigenous Peoples in the health care system.
On Friday, the family’s lawyer announced a series of legal actions his firm will be taking in coming weeks. The goal, Dubé said, is to obtain justice for Echaquan but also to “make sure what happened here never happens again.”
The actions, lawyer Jean-François Bertrand said, will include a lawsuit against the hospital as well as the nurse and patient attendant heard in Echaquan’s video.
Bertrand has not yet established an amount for the lawsuit, he said.
His firm will also file a complaint with the police in hopes of having a criminal investigation launched and a separate complaint with the Quebec Human Rights Commission.
It will also seek to have Quebec’s Order of Nurses permanently bar the nurse in question from ever working again and ask the provincial government to hold a public inquiry into the mistreatment of Indigenous Peoples at the hospital.
“What happened is nothing less than unacceptable,” Bertrand said. “But it is, unfortunately, a reflection of the systemic racism lived by Indigenous Peoples every day.”
With that, Bertrand challenged Premier François Legault to acknowledge there is systemic racism in the province and stop denying it exists.
“Please recognize it. When you refuse to recognize a problem, you become part of it,” Bertrand said. “Indigenous people are not speaking out against an absence of justice, but rather the presence of injustice.”
Legault has denied there is systemic racism in Quebec on several occasions and has continued to do so this week as the issue has resurfaced following Echaquan’s death.
“For me, when we talk about systemic racism, it’s in relation to Black people in the United States,” Legault said during a news conference Friday. “For me, I don’t see that in Quebec. But, for sure, there is some racism against First Nations in Quebec.”
“I want to fight,” he added, “I want to be the government that takes the most actions against racism against First Nations.”
Earlier Friday, Legault was scheduled to meet with Assembly of First Nations Quebec-Labrador Chief Ghislain Picard, but Picard withdrew from the meeting at the last moment.
Picard said he didn’t want to hold the meeting without the presence of Atikamekw chiefs, saying he felt uncomfortable doing so without properly addressing what happened in Joliette. But Legault refused the request, he said.
The premier, for his part, accused Picard of playing games and said no such request was ever made.
Paul-Émile Ottawa, chief of the Atikamekw Council of Manawan, was with Echaquan’s family on Friday.
“There are a lot of shocking and unjustifiable aspects to this tragedy,” Ottawa said. “There are the words spoken and Joyce’s inexplicable death. But what is even more shocking, is that it could have been avoided.”
The Viens commission, an inquiry into Indigenous Peoples treatment by public services in Quebec, had brought to light issues at the Joliette hospital a year ago.
But it was never acted on, Ottawa said.
The circumstances surrounding Echaquan’s death are being investigated by a coroner and the local health authority. A nurse and patient attendant heard in the video were fired this week.
In his remarks Friday, Dubé questioned how many Indigenous women had been treated similarly but weren’t able to record it to show the world.
As Dubé broke down, one of Echaquan’s sons came to comfort him, wrapping his arms around his shoulders. Dubé then said he didn’t want to be overtaken with anger but was struggling not to.
“Justice for Joyce,” he said, his voice rising. “Justice for the children. Justice for the Atikamekw nation and all other First Nations.”