MONTREAL -- Dear Mr. Legault,

The tragic death of Ms. Joyce Echaquan at the hospital in Joliette is one of the darkest moments in the relationship between Quebec and Indigenous Peoples.

Denial and inaction are no longer possible.

Need we remind you that, when the French colonizers arrived here in America, the First Nations living here extended them their hand? And that the treaties they agreed to sign with France were agreements of cooperation and mutual assistance?

The reversal of the population ratio of Indigenous to non-Indigenous and the loss of Indigenous Peoples’ status as military and economic allies in the early 19th century contributed to the deterioration of these relations.

In 1857, long before the federal parliament passed the Indian Act, the Province of Canada (to which Lower Canada belonged) adopted the Act to Encourage the Gradual Civilization of the Indian Tribes in the Province.

This law, like others that followed in the 19th and 20th centuries, would distort our understanding of Indigenous Peoples and help to insidiously institutionalize “the Indian” as a “sub-person.”

When a group of citizens has been repeatedly marginalized for decades by public institutions because of their race, as the Viens Commission report demonstrates, it is indeed “systemic” racism.

The insults of the nurse and the attendant at the Joliette hospital addressed to Ms. Echaquan are an example of explicit, direct, putrid racism; a racism that does not hide its name.

Systemic racism, on the other hand, is expressed when, in a public institution, conditions are such that actions like these are tolerated—actions which, if directed towards our mothers, would provoke tears of rage.

Thus, it is indeed systemic racism that we face.

While employees are to be blamed for their words, their superiors have an even greater responsibility, for they have accepted that such a culture be tolerated in their establishments.

Remember that Ms. Echaquan was in the hospital, an institution whose purpose is to treat and heal. Not only was she denied the right to live with dignity, but the last hours of her life were desecrated.

Mr. Legault, we no longer want to live in a Quebec that does not dare to face its demons.

Who do you hope to spare by refusing to recognize the systemic and documented nature of racism against Indigenous Peoples?

Who do you think you would be hurting by making such an admission?

By the way, would you doubt that French Canadians were the targets of systemic racism before the 1970s? According to a survey conducted in July 2020, the vast majority of Quebecers consider that Indigenous Peoples are the subject of racism and First Nations are not on an equal footing with non-Indigenous Quebecers within government structures.

We ask you to recognize, as premier, that the racism that plagues our institutions must be eradicated. This does not mean that all Quebecers and all Quebec public servants are racists. You are too smart to think that is what we mean. Rather, it means that there is an institutional culture that enables the treatment of Indigenous Peoples as second-class. It is a culture of “it goes without saying, she’s just an Indian after all.”

The unacceptable death of Ms. Echaquan gives you an opportunity to change history and to show that Quebecers are ready to rebuild their relations with First Nations. And we would all be winners, as Indigenous cultures and visions enrich us all collectively.

We often speak in Quebec of the Two Solitudes of Canada, but there is a third solitude in Quebec: that of the Indigenous. And this one is the most terrible, because the Indigenous are treated with contempt.

Show us that in Quebec, Indigenous Peoples are not reduced to being either opponents or allies of economic development.

Show us that their humanity, made up of strengths and weaknesses like ours, goes beyond their mere utility for the Quebec economy. Show us that they count as full human beings.

Catherine Potvin, Department of Biology, McGill University

Jean Leclair, Faculty of Law, Université de Montréal

The complete list of the 472 signatories to the letter can be found here.