A year after her death, supporters call for change at multiple vigils for Joyce Echaquan

One year ago, Atikamekw mother Joyce Echaquan died in the Joliette Hospital while hospital staff mocked her with racist taunts.

She livestreamed her experience on Facebook, while she cried in pain and experienced stomach pains.

The video went viral after her death leading to calls from across the country to improve conditions and services for Indigenous people in health-care centres.

Exactly a year later, on Tuesday, Echaquan's family held a vigil outside of the same hospital.

Several dozen members of the Atikamekw community, the minister responsible for Indigenous Affairs, Ian Lafrenière, and Deputy Premier Geneviève Guilbault gathered in a tent behind the hospital on Tuesday.

Echaquan's family first had a private ceremony inside the hospital, where she died, before the ceremony in the outdoor tent.

Echaquan's family then visited the hospital room where she died and later took part in a ceremony in her honour with Atikamekw community members, politicians and other guests.

Some guests carried a red or pink rose as they entered a white tent erected behind the hospital. Others, some wearing ribbon skirts or sweatshirts bearing Echaquan's picture, sat on folding chairs outside.

Constant Awashish, chief of the Atikamekw First Nation, told reporters he appreciates that Quebecers are more aware of systemic racism since Echaquan's death, but he said the anniversary is a source of anxiety.

"It's a confusing day for people," he said. "We want something better for future generations and better treatment for First Nations in public services, but also there is this anxiety that Joyce Echaquan gave her life for no reason."

"The feeling of anxiety is that we want the government to recognize the situation and call it by its real name," he added, referring to the provincial government's refusal to use the term systemic racism to describe inequalities in Quebec society.

The Assembly of First Nations Quebec and Labrador (AFNQL) hosted another press conference in the afternoon where AFNQL chief Ghislain Picard will speak about the situation a year after the AFNQL Action Plan on Racism and Discrimination was unveiled.

And Tuesday night, health-care workers in Montreal will hold a candlelight vigil for the 37-year-old mother, along with Echaquan's spouse, Carol Dube.

That vigil, at 7 p.m. at Place Emilie Gamelin, is meant to mark the call for action made by the Atikamekw Council of Manawan and the Council of the Atikamekw Nation.

The Native Friendship Centre in Joliette will also host a vigil for Echaquan at 6 p.m. on Ste-Anne Blvd. in the municipality where she died.

CALLS TO IMPLEMENT JOYCE'S PRINCIPLE

In addition, organizers are calling for Quebec to implement Joyce's Principle in the health-care and education systems in the province.

The Atikamekw-produced Joyce's Principle in November 2020 "aims to guarantee all Indigenous people the right of equitable access to all social and health services without any discrimination, as well as right to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical, mental, emotional and spiritual health."

(Read the complete document below).

The Quebec government has refused to adopt the principle.

Quebec Native Women sent a letter to Premier François Legault and Lafrenière asking for the CAQ government to adopt the principle.

"A year has passed since Ms. Echaquan's death and despite repeated requests from Indigenous organizations, your government has unfortunately refused to listen to reason and adopt Joyce's Principle," the letter reads.

"Aimed at ensuring equitable access, without discrimination, to all health and social services, the Joyce Principle would provide a guarantee to Indigenous people, particularly Indigenous women, who experience racism and systemic discrimination."

Lafreniere released a statement Tuesday inviting Quebecers "to reflect collectively on the fight against racism and on relations with the First Nations and the Inuit."

The statement says that the government is "continuing to respond to the questions raised by Joyce's Principle," but stops short of any suggestion that the principle will be adopted.

"Let us reflect together on ways to deconstruct prejudice. It is my hope that we can then live together better and thus avoid other similar tragedies in the future," said Lafreniere in the release.

LEGAULT SPARS OVER SYSTEMIC RACISM ACCUSATION

Premier Francois Legault tweeted on Tuesday that what had happened to Echaquan was a "collective awakening to the discrimination still suffered by Indigenous Peoples." He added: "Let's continue to fight against these behaviours that have no place in our society."

However, on Tuesday in the National Assembly, Legault accused a Liberal MNA of conflating Echaquan's death with the CAQ bill on secularism, as the government refused an opposition motion on Joyce's Principle.

In question period, Liberal Indigenous affairs critic Greg Kelley asked the government why it did not recognize systemic racism in Quebec.

Legault countered with comments for the MNA. A video shows Kelley launching into a lengthy tirade in front of supporters. He denounced both the CAQ's secularism bill and an immigration bill and criticized Echaquan's death.

"I ask you to judge (the CAQ members) on their actions," he said. "The first thing they did was to pass a law that reduced immigration and the number of refugees.

"The second law is Law 21 (on secularism), and now let's talk about Joyce Echaquan... Thousands of people marched in the streets to demand that the government recognize systemic racism. And let me add Bill 96 (on French as an official language), again with the notwithstanding clause, used to restrict and remove rights."

"I will never accept that the Member of the National Assembly is conflating Joyce Echaquan with Bill 96," Legault said before being interrupted by the Speaker of the House.

SYMBOLS OF SUPPORT

Universite de Montreal said it will light its tower from Tuesday until Thursday evening in honour of Echaquan and National Truth and Reconciliation Day, which is held on Sept. 30.

-- With files from The Canadian Press

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