The tragic death of Joyce Echaquan does not tolerate inertia when it comes to access, without discrimination, to health care and social services for Indigenous people. That’s the essential idea behind Joyce’s Principle, a document created by the Council of the Atikamekw Nation and the Atikamekw Council of Manawan, which was delivered to the federal and provincial governments on November 16.
The governing Coalition Avenir Québec, however, appears to have a higher tolerance for inertia after it rejected an attempt by Liberal MNA Gregory Kelley to have the document adopted and implemented by the National Assembly November 24, objecting to the term “systemic racism” in the document.
Echaquan’s death on September 28 at a Joliette hospital was shocking even for those accustomed to the discrimination routinely faced by Indigenous people in public systems. After admitting herself to hospital with stomach pains, the 37-year-old Atikamekw mother of seven filmed hospital staff making racist insults at her shortly before she died.
“She fought until the end, wanting people to know what was going on with her,” said Atikamekw Grand Chief Constant Awashish. “[Joyce’s Principle] was initiated by leaders to come up with this document. We started with a few lines then asked the public for suggestions about what should be in the principle. A lot of people responded.”
Awashish told the Nation the idea is modelled on Jordan’s Principle, the child-first and needs-based commitment to ensure First Nations children receive equitable access to all government services. Joyce’s Principle similarly intends to guarantee Indigenous people have equitable access to health and social services without discrimination.
“It focuses on education and sensitization for government-Indigenous relations so that our rights are respected,” explained Awashish. “With Joyce’s Principle, we talk about the healthcare system, but we could say the same thing about all levels. People have distorted views of First Nations.”
The document begins a statement by Echaquan’s husband, Carol Dubé, expressing his wish that her death didn’t occur in vain and that “no one ever again falls victim to systemic racism.” Acknowledging this last term is integral to the document, despite Premier François Legault’s refusal to admit it exists.
“All the people who communicated with us agree there is systemic racism, but still the government does not recognize it,” asserted Awashish. “It’s recognizing we were the ones colonized with a system put in place against us. That’s what we call systemic racism. That’s what Mr. Legault doesn’t understand.”
Awashish argued political rhetoric regularly paints Indigenous groups as opposed to development and continues to perpetuate stereotypes that have grown over centuries. A solution highlighted in Joyce’s Principle calls for a massive re-education, particularly for healthcare workers.
It demands schools, professional orders and healthcare agencies offer training programs for cultural sensitization and that the Quebec government establish an ombudsperson’s office for Indigenous health and finance awareness campaigns to educate the general public about Indigenous issues. The document also specifically asks Legault to acknowledge systemic racism.