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Calls for action at Joyce vigil

Nakuset, executive director of the Native Women’s Shelter of Montreal, speaking at the vigil for Joyce Echaquan in Montreal last week. Miriam Lafontaine The Eastern Door

Little has changed in Quebec hospitals since the passing of Joyce Echaquan three years ago, Nakuset said. Through her work at the Native Women’s Shelter of Montreal (NWSM), she often still hears stories of patients being denied basic care and taunted with racist remarks.

“When this happened, Indigenous people were already weary of going to the hospital, and now it’s worse,” the executive director of NWSM said last Thursday at a vigil commemorating Echaquan’s death.

Echaquan’s passing at the Joliette Hospital brought to light the existence of systemic racism in health institutions across Quebec as an undeniable reality for many, though the government continues to refuse to recognize its existence. 

In her final moments, the Atikamekw mother of seven took out her cell phone to film racist insults that were being thrown at her by a nurse there. She died as a result of being denied proper care, a coroner later determined, who went as far to say she would still be alive today had she been white.

Dozens attended the candle-lit vigil held in downtown Montreal at Place du Canada to celebrate Echaquan’s life.

“We cannot let Joyce’s death be for nothing,” said Ellen Gabriel, a Kanehsata’kehró:non activist and documentary filmmaker. “We are not commodities, we are human beings, and I don’t care what Mr. Legault says: systemic racism exists in Quebec. You cannot fight racism by declaring there is no racism.” 

Indigenous sensitivity training implemented in response to Echaquan’s death has become mandatory for all Quebec healthcare staff, but that’s yet to change the reality on the ground. Healthcare staff who spoke at the vigil say they’re still hearing horror stories.

Nakuset shared the story of one mother who contacted her after experiencing “11 days of hell” this August while seeking hospital care for chronic pain. She was told by a doctor her health problems were caused “by not working,” adding she “needed to get off welfare and go back to work,” Nakuset recounted. 

According to Nakuset, the same doctor also told the patient “I don’t think I should give you any medication because you’re probably an alcoholic and a drug addict.”

Despite this harsh reality, many in the crowd seemed hopeful about the steps being taken by Indigenous organizations in Montreal to make healthcare more equitable. 

The Montreal Indigenous Community NETWORK, an umbrella organization that regularly works with Indigenous-led organizations in Tiohtià:ke, said inroads have been made with Montreal’s health agencies and its university health institutions, which they regularly meet with to voice their demands and concerns.

“In this space they take our concerns very seriously, opening the door for us to begin transforming the system that has historically harmed our people,” said Leilani Shaw, the interim executive director of the NETWORK, who’s from Kahnawake.

The NETWORK’s participation on the Montreal Indigenous Health Advisory Circle has since led them to secure provincial funding toward an addiction centre they hope to establish in coming years, which will work in collaboration with the Native Friendship Centre of Montreal, Shaw said. 

“COVID really highlighted and exposed a lot of the lack of services and cracks in the system that many Indigenous people in the system fall through,” she told The Eastern Door

Plans are also set in motion to see new Indigenous health clinics open in the city, including one that will work in collaboration with Native Montreal, Shaw said. The Indigenous Health Centre of Tiotihà:ke, an emergency walk-in clinic for urban Indigenous that opened this summer by Vendome metro station, was also a major achievement. But unfortunately navigating hospitals is still a major hurdle, she said. 

“I believe advocating for your health now is increasingly difficult,” Shaw said. “Thankfully now there are some health navigators from Indigenous organizations that will sit with someone in an ER for eight hours until they get seen – but there’s not enough of them.”

This article was originally published in print on Friday, October 6, in issue 32.40 of The Eastern Door.

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Miriam Lafontaine is a reporter with the Eastern Door. Her work has appeared in Le Devoir, CBC Montreal, CBC New Brunswick as well as the Toronto Star.

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Miriam Lafontaine is a reporter with the Eastern Door. Her work has appeared in Le Devoir, CBC Montreal, CBC New Brunswick as well as the Toronto Star.