Just weeks after Joyce Echaquan’s death amid a flurry of racist insults in a Joliette hospital ignited national outrage, another Quebec hospital is under scrutiny for slurs directed at an Indigenous man in the days before he died.
As a patient at the Hôpital de Chicoutimi, Georges-Hervé Awashish woke up in the night to use the bathroom when he allegedly overheard nurses laughing about the Echaquan case. He quoted them saying, “We have one, an Indian asleep in his room. We should inject him with toxic chemicals. His problem will be fixed, he doesn’t walk anyways.”
Unable to get back to sleep, Awashish asked his son to come get him out of the hospital. When he was forced to return days later for dialysis treatments, he was put on a different floor, one where his doctor tried to assure him that no one would disturb him.
However, he remained fearful he would suffer the same fate as Echaquan, an Atikamekw from the community of Manewan. Also an Attikamekw, Awashish lived about 350 km north in Obedjiwan. Awashish told the online media La Converse that he could still hear the nurses’ voices in his head and was taking anxiety medication.
Following the 53-year-old’s death October 11, the regional health authority that oversees the hospital, the CIUSSS du Saguenay–Lac-Saint-Jean, confirmed it had launched an investigation into his allegations and the circumstances surrounding his death.
“I want the world to know that it won’t stay like this what he experienced there,” his daughter Kimberley Sikon Awashish told the Nation. “We will file a complaint on behalf of our father about the racism and death threats he experienced.”
While her father died the day before he was scheduled to file a complaint with police, he also knew he had not long to live, telling his daughter October 7 that doctors had found a bacteria in his heart. As he had just received treatment for his dialysis, it was judged too risky to do another operation right away.
“I found that his skin was not normal,” she recalled. “My brother told me that the doctor started to cry when they got into my father’s room. I couldn’t say goodbye to my father. And that’s what hurts me.”
As the families of both Awashish and Echaquan await autopsy results, the Council of the Atikamekw Nation has been meeting with federal and provincial governments to address systemic racism in the healthcare system. They have proposed “Joyce’s Principle” to formally recognize the right of Indigenous people to access health services free of discrimination.
“First Nations have been speaking out about humiliating situations for a very long time,” said Atikamekw Grand Chief Constant Awashish. “We had video proof with Joyce Echaquan. For Georges-Hervé, there is no written or video proof unfortunately. We hope for satisfactory answers, which will leave no room for doubt.”
With a growing reluctance among the region’s Indigenous community to seek health services, a new clinic called Mirerimowin opened October 27 at the Lanaudière Native Friendship Centre in Joliette.
The culturally safe space will initially operate two afternoons a month, serving Indigenous patients who do not have access to a doctor or guiding them to other services. Friendship Centre coordinator Jennifer Brazeau said the clinic needs more support from the regional health agency to adequately serve the community.
A year after the Viens Commission report, Brazeau is among many leaders demanding that Quebec recognize the existence of systemic racism against Indigenous people as the first step to creating real change. While Premier François Legault has acknowledged racism exists, he continues to deny that Quebec institutions have a problem with system racism.
“Until political leaders can put aside their pride and reach out to the other side instead of waiting for an invitation, until leaders have courage to show each other empathy without anticipation of gratitude, Quebec will be divided and fall short of its full potential,” stated Cree Grand Chief Abel Bosum. “Let the death of Joyce Echaquan be the shock that ends the culture of impunity and establishes accountability throughout the public services in their dealings with Indigenous persons.”