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Montreal is currently in the COVID-19 red zone, but it didn’t stop a large number of protesters from gathering on Saturday to demand Justice for Joyce Echaquan.
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Tragedies happen every day, but not everyone has the bravery to document them.
Joyce Echaquan did.
What started as a cry for help became a recording of her death. The video has since caught the public’s attention and gone viral. For the past week, Echaquan’s last words resonated with those all over the world, as they exposed an appalling reality.
On September 28, Echaquan live-streamed degrading and racist comments she received from the Centre Hospitalier de Lanaudieres nurses in Joliette, while laying in bed.
The 37-year-old Atikamekw woman from Manawan was administered morphine, to which she had an allergic reaction, after seeking treatment for stomach pain.
In the video, Echaquan can be heard screaming for help while the nurses respond in French saying that she was “only good for sex” and “stupid as f*ck.”
These were her last moments. The mother of seven never came out of the hospital.
On Saturday, October 3, a week after her death, her last screams were honoured by a powerful minute of silence in the streets of downtown Montreal. An impressive crowd demanded Justice for Joyce.
Over 1,000 people marched throughout the city, led by several speeches denouncing systemic racism. Every guest speaker criticized the Quebec government’s inaction despite the continuous recommendations, such as the ones from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
“We are here, we are many and we are angry,” said Alisha Tukkiapik, the head of Quebec Solidaire National Indigenous Committee.
Tukkiapik was among the large number of protesters calling for justice. She voiced not only her pain and sadness for Echaquan and her family, but reiterated the importance of recognizing systemic racism towards all Indigenous people.
“I’ve been crying for three days wondering, am I next?” said Tukkiapik as tears rolled down her cheeks.“Who else is next? We are often called savages, but look at the people that are doing it,” she said.
When Nakuset, head of the Native Women’s Shelter of Montreal (NWSM) saw the video, she felt anger and outrage. She explained to The Eastern Door that this was an opportunity to send a positive message.
“You have to be better than anyone. People are already looking at Indigenous people as if we are lower, so you have to raise that bar,” said the NWSM executive director. Nakuset organized the peaceful walk, along with Jessica Quijano and Janis Qavavauq-Bibeau from the Iskweu Project, as well as Jaggi Singh, a Montreal activist. As the protest took place in a COVID-19 red zone, more than 50 volunteers were tasked with enforcing mask-wearing and social distancing.
“People don’t know what’s happening. This is putting it into the light,” said Quijano, the project coordinator Iskweu, which addresses the ongoing social crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.
Nakuset believes the number of people who showed up in solidarity is representative of the outrage surrounding this tragedy.
The protest came at the same time as Public Safety minister Geneviève Guilbault announced a public inquiry into Echequan’s death. A few days later, on Tuesday, Premier François Legault made an apology to Echaquan’s family. This was days after repeatedly insisting that systemic racism does not exist in Quebec.
“It’s stubbornness. It’s his way of continuing racism by not saying it and denying it,” said Nakuset. “If we are strong, healthy and empowered, then we stand up.”
For Ellen Gabriel, one of the guest speakers at the protest, the issue goes beyond Echaquan’s horrific death. The activist has been fighting for the past 30 years for the right to self-determination.
“This is not a new problem, this is a problem that came from over the ocean 500 years ago,” said Gabriel, in front of the protesters, “it exists with or without FaceTime.”
While the nurse and attendant on Echaquan’s video have since been fired and various investigations have been launched, Legault’s refusal to condemn systemic racism prompted more than 400 health care professionals to sign a letter of denunciation.
“Those of us working in health care know very well that what Echaquan went through was not an isolated incident,” read the letter. “Systemic racism against Indigenous people is not simply endemic within the health-care system, it is normalized and perpetuated,” it continued.
Dr. Stanley Vollant’s words at Saturday’s demonstration reiterated a similar message. As he paid tribute to Echaquan, the Innu surgeon from Pessamit admitted that throughout his 30 years of practice, he witnessed too many acts of systemic racism.
“Enough is enough,” said Vollant.
As many of the speakers expressed, Echaquan’s seven children will now live with this unimaginable reality, and this tragedy will bring upon intergenerational trauma throughout their future.
The health system has failed them.
“When her children are going to hurt themselves, are they going to want to go to the hospital? No,” said Nakuset, “we need our hospitals to do better.”