The tragic story of a Atikamekw woman who recorded nurses’ racist comments about her as she lay dying in a Quebec hospital is drawing comparisons to the death of Brian Sinclair, an Indigenous man who died in a Winnipeg emergency room 12 years ago.
Joyce Echaquan was live streaming on her phone as nurses entered her hospital room on Monday in Joliette, Que. One of them called her “stupid as hell,” mocking Echaquan as she moaned in Atikamekw that she was being given too much medication.
The 37-year-old died shortly after.
In September 2008, Brian Sinclair, a 45-year-old double amputee, died of a treatable bladder infection as he waited for 34 hours to get care in the emergency room at Winnipeg’s Health Science Centre.
An inquest found that he was never asked if he was waiting for medical care and that nurses at the Health Sciences Centre did not help him even as he vomited on himself. He was eventually found dead in his wheelchair.
Mary Jane Logan McCallum, who co-authored the book Structures of Indifference: An Indigenous Life and Death in a Canadian City, says both Echaquan’s and Sinclair’s experiences show Indigenous people who went to the hospital in obvious distress, but who were ignored and/or mistreated because of their race.
“[Indigenous people will] suspect that they’ve been treated or mistreated or undertreated in ways that are fuelled by racism, and racist assumptions about the patient,” she said.
“Many believe that those assumptions led to their death or to … a harm to them that would not have happened to them if they had presented differently in the hospital, if they had presented perhaps as more middle-class, more white.”
Chief Sheldon Kent of Black River First Nation, who is the chair of the First Nations Health and Social Secretariat of Manitoba, says he often hears stories from community members about how they’ve faced racism when accessing medical care in urban centres. It’s also something he and his family members have experienced personally.
“It’s very concerning and I personally feel it exists in all our provinces,” he said.
“I’ve experienced it firsthand, sitting with my own relatives in the hospital. You see the way you’re treated as opposed to a non-Indigenous person.”
He said it’s sad that it took someone filming the racism they were experiencing for people to pay attention.
“You know, it’s really sad if we’re coming to that stage in treatment where we’re going to have to send in body cams with our members when they go there,” he said.
Inquiries often flawed
As with Sinclair’s case, there have been calls for an inquiry into Echaquan’s death and for the Quebec government to act on recommendations included in the Viens Commission‘s report, which was tabled last September and examined problems with Indigenous treatment in public services.
On Monday, Quebec Premier François Legault offered his condolences to Echaquan’s family, confirming a coroner’s inquiry and that a workplace investigation will be held. But he stopped short of saying the incident reflected systemic racism.
But McCallum said such inquiries can be limited in their impact, and sometimes point to existing health issues the Indigenous person already had.
She pointed to a book written on the subject by Sherene Razack, a professor at the University of California, which argued that inquiries and inquests into untimely Indigenous deaths often turn the blame back onto the individuals.
“So I think now we need to watch those inquiries very carefully and make sure that we keep the focus on what was said and what was done by those nurses,” she said.
The Southern Chiefs’ Organization also pointed to similarities between Echaquan’s and Sinclair’s deaths in a statement condemning the actions at the hospital in Joliette.
“While shocking to many in Canada and the rest of the world, this video confirms what First Nation people and communities across the country have been reporting for years,” said SCO Grand Chief Jerry Daniels.
“No one should ever be subjected to that level of racist treatment. She went to the hospital seeking medical care, and instead was met with insults and judgments purely based on being a First Nation person.”
What happened to Echaquan shows that little has changed since Sinclair died in 2008, Daniels concluded.
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