'Change has to happen now': Montreal vigil marks two years since Joyce Echaquan's death
Dozens of Montrealers gathered Wednesday to remember Joyce Echaquan, an Atikamekw woman whose death in a Joliette hospital sparked an uproar and a public reckoning with systemic racism that continues two years later.
Echaquan's final moments were broadcast live online on her Facebook account on Sept. 28, 2020, as nursing staff hurled racist and derogatory comments toward her before the 37-year-old woman died in the hospital northeast of Montreal.
Holding lit candles and sharing stories about her, loved ones and Indigenous community members held a vigil in Montreal at Place du Canada to remember the life of the mother of seven.
Earlier Wednesday morning, the Atikamekw Council of Manawan announced members of Echaquan's family and their lawyer are planning to file a civil lawsuit against an unnamed defendant at the Joliette courthouse on Thursday morning. Their lawyer said a press conference will also be held to "call for accountability from the CISSS de Lanaudière on what has been done and what still needs to be done."
The Montreal memorial was also held under the shadow of recent remarks from incumbent premier François Legault that have hurt some in the Atikamekw community. During a televised election debate, he said the problems of racism have been "settled" at the Joliette hospital. He later issued an apology.
In a public letter issued after the debate, Echaquan's husband, Carol Dubé, denounced the remarks and said that the changes at the hospital have been mostly cosmetic and that deeper systemic issues remain.
Legault tweeted about the two-year anniversary of Echaquan's death Wednesday with a tweet that said his thoughts were with her family and her community "on this difficult day."
"We must continue to fight racism in Quebec," Legault wrote, with an obvious omission of the word "systemic" in the tweet.
The CAQ leader has long insisted since Echaquan's death that systemic racism does not exist in Quebec, even though the coroner who led a public inquiry into her death said it was an "undeniable" case of systemic racism.
People who attended Wednesday's vigil were still refuting Legaul's vehement assertions.
"It's really irresponsible of the premier to say systemic racism doesn't exist in Quebec. He can't really say [it] because he has not experienced it," said Ellen Gabriel, a Mohawk artist and activist.
"As Indigenous people, we experience it on a daily basis and Joyce's death shows the existence of systemic racism."
Leaving no doubt about Echaquan's treatment by hospital staff two years ago, coroner Gehane Kamel said in her report that the Atikamekw woman would have been alive today if she were white.
She called on the Quebec government to recognize systemic racism as one of her several recommendations following her inquiry.
Vigil participants also reignited calls for adopting Joyce's Principle, a call to action created by the Atikamekw community that would guarantee equal access to health care for Indigenous peoples in the province in government-run facilities.
Legault's CAQ government refused to adopt Joyce's Principle in 2020, prompting condemnation from Indigenous communities and opposition parties in the National Assembly.
"Joyce's Principle basically provides us with a blueprint of how we need to change things in order to make the health-care system a place where we can provide dignified and culturally safe care for Indigenous people. That change has to happen now," Dr. Samir Shaheen-Hussain during the memorial.
Quebec's Indigenous affairs minister, Ian Lafrenière, was also scheduled to attend a march in Echaquan's community Wednesday to mark the two-year anniversary of her death.
Another march is set to be held Friday to mark the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation.
With files from CTV Montreal's Kelly Greig