A disturbing incident has rattled the Canadian healthcare system. In the province of Quebec, a nurse has been fired after using coarse, racist language toward an indigenous woman who was screaming for help in her hospital bed. The patient, Joyce Echaquan, recorded the exchange on video and claimed that she was being fed too much morphine. The mother of seven died shortly after.
The video has become a rallying cry for the indigenous community. To honor her life, leaders are urging the Canadian government to take a stand against the mistreatment of indigenous peoples.
A Desperate Cry for Help
Joyce Echaquan went to a hospital in Joliette, Que., northeast of Montreal, complaining of stomach pains. During her stay, she recorded a video of herself in bed begging for medical attention. Several moments later at the end of the video, two female staff members appear in her room and begin exchanging derogatory comments.
One nurse can be heard saying she’s “stupid as hell,” that she’s only useful for sex, and that she’s better off dead. Onscreen, Echaquan continues to protest for help, but the nurse accuses her of making poor life decisions, asking her what her children would think if they could see her in that state.
“That’s why I came here,” Echaquan can be heard repeating quietly in the background.
You can see the exchange in this video from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC):
A Culture of Racism
The video has since been shared widely online, prompting backlash from healthcare providers, the indigenous community, and their allies. The Quebec chief of the Assembly of First Nations, Ghislain Picard, has called on the Canadian government to address what he sees as a culture of racism in the province.
The Quebec coroner’s office says it will conduct an investigation into Echaquan’s death, but Picard says that shouldn’t excuse the government from addressing the underlying issue. During a virtual press conference, he stated, “A coroner’s report will not change anything about the racism displayed by nurses. It is a question of attitude and a question of culture.”
The Council of the Atikamekw Nation, which represents the indigenous group, condemned the incident as well. As Grand Chief Constant Awashish said in a statement. “It is unfortunate that in 2020 such behaviors can still occur. It is everyone’s responsibility to denounce them, especially in the context of health services and whose ethics should protect us from the discomfort of racism.”
For Verna Polson, leader of the Anoshnabeg Nation, the video was personal. Speaking alongside Picard at the virtual press conference, she said, “I am also sad at the thought that her children this morning no longer have a mother. This systemic racism that exists today in Quebec, we, the Aboriginal women, live it every day.”
François Legault, Premier of Quebec, denounced the nurses’ actions but said it doesn’t qualify as an example of systemic racism. “What happened is totally unacceptable. There will be two inquiries and the nurse did something unacceptable and she has been fired,” the Premier commented.
Was It Criminal?
Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller says the video raises a lot of questions. “The best case scenario is this person died at the hands of a racist and the worst case scenario is much worse, it makes you think about criminality and it’s why we need to get a full inquest into what happened.”
While only one nurse has been fired, both providers and the facility could be subject to criminal charges, depending on the results of the investigation.
Miller sends his regards to Echaquan’s family and the children she’s left behind. “What is gut-wrenching about this, is someone who is in their most vulnerable and they’re dying, having heard racist words expressed towards them,” he said.
Respecting the Rights of Indigenous Peoples
While this story comes from Canada, the U.S. is not immune to the mistreatment of indigenous peoples.
Native Americans have a much shorter life expectancy than the general population. They face higher rates of heart disease, diabetes, alcohol-induced diseases, accidents, injuries, among other health conditions. Indigenous people often live in rural areas where access to care can be limited.
That’s why the government created the Indian Health Service (IHS), which is available to all members of 573 federally recognized American Indian and Alaska Native Tribes and their descendants. It serves as a comprehensive health service delivery system for around half of the nation’s estimated 5.2 million Native Americans.
Providers inside and outside the IHS have a responsibility to be sensitive to the needs of their patients regardless of their background. Studies show many Native Americans have a negative opinion about the country’s healthcare system.
According to a recent study, 23% of those surveyed said they have experienced discrimination in clinical encounters, while 15% said they avoid seeking healthcare for themselves or family members due to anticipated discrimination.
A startling number of Native Americans also said they or their family members have experienced violence (38%) or have been threatened or harassed (34%) when dealing with institutions, such as healthcare, police, and the courts. As a society, we can’t tolerate these acts of discrimination and abuse.
The death of Joyce Echaquan is tragic in more ways than one. Our hearts go out to her family and loved ones. Ask better of your colleagues and take a stand against the mistreatment of indigenous peoples everywhere.