Purple was the colour of honour at the vigil held to commemorate the life of Joyce Echaquan.
A year has come and gone since the Atikamekw mother of seven live-streamed her last moments where she was taunted by racist remarks from nursing staff at the Joliette Hospital.
The anniversary of her death was marked by memorials, including a vigil attended by hundreds in Montreal’s Place Émilie-Gamelin on the evening of Tuesday, September 28.
“It’s been a trying day for everyone – the family, the community and myself. There are a lot of interactions and emotions that hit us today,” said the Atikamekw Nation grand chief, Constant Awashish. “In difficult times like these, it feels good to see people – (especially) to see people who are engaged.”
Throughout testimonies dedicated to remembering Echaquan were simultaneous calls for concrete actions to honour her death and not allow her to die in vain.
“Joyce has allowed us to wake up,” continued Awashish. “We want a government that is receptive to our demands and that applies what we ask for – not just what they think is best for us.”
A few hours before candles at the vigil were lit, the Ordre des infirmières et infirmiers du Québec, the regulating body responsible for assigning nursing licences in the province, announced that the permit of Paule Rocray would be suspended for a year. Rocray, who was found guilty of using verbal violence towards Echaquan shortly before she died,
was previously fired from the Joliette Hospital.
Patrick Martin-Ménard, a lawyer and friend of Echaquan’s family, denounced the Order’s announcement as insensitive and expressed that the family opposed the sanction of just one year.
As she fought back tears, recently appointed Innu senator and long-time Indigenous advocate Michèle Audette also condemned the action.
“They could have waited until tomorrow. They could have met with the family first to explain their reason and decision,”
said Audette. “If we denounce systemic racism, why did the system neglect to call the father – the spouse, the mother and the nation?”
Throughout the vigil, Onkwehón:we healthcare providers, including Innu surgeon at Montreal’s Notre-Dame hospital, Stanley Vollant, shared words of strength to demand explicit measures to be applied in all of Quebec’s healthcare system.
“It is fundamental: all human beings must be treated the same, regardless of cultural origin, language, skin colour and sexual diversity,” said Vollant.
The indignation expressed over the Order’s decision was also reflected in urgent calls addressed at elected officials to
apply Joyce’s Principle across the province and acknowledge that the conditions in which the mother died were, in fact, the result of existing systemic racism.
“There is no denying it. The death of our sister Joyce has created an important human wave for a year now,” said Assembly of First Nations Quebec-Labrador (AFNQL) regional chief Ghislain Picard. “The call to action we are making is a collective call.”
While the task to affect concrete systemic change lies in the hands of elected officials, Picard emphasized the duty each citizen holds in this ongoing fight for justice.
“I do not want in any way to disengage governments from their responsibilities, but it is us who have created this wave, and it is us who will turn it towards an unavoidable shift that is necessary at the political level,” added the AFNQL chief.
This message was further echoed by Audette. “Through your eyes, your faces, your emotions, I learned to know Joyce and to love her. And what Joyce is telling us is to stay responsible,” she said while maintaining a locked gaze with Echaquan’s spouse, Carol Dubé.
“Once we saw the video and once we heard her (Joyce) – we could no longer pretend that this is happening elsewhere – it’s happening next to Montreal, here, in Joliette. We have a responsibility to tell all governments, as well as all citizens: ‘Let’s make sure that it never happens again.’”
As the vigil candles slowly burned and that the sound of drumming began to fade, Dubé pleaded for unity to assure Joyce’s name carries on and leads to justice for all Onkwehón:we.
“Why do I have to go knocking on the government’s door to get justice? The Creator, who is often called by many names, has given each of us gifts. Let’s have the courage to use these gifts for a better society: a fair, an equal, and a peaceful one.”
Laurence Brisson Dubreuil, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Eastern Door