By Jan Murphy
Local Journalism Initiative
The death of 37-year-old Indigenous Canadian Joyce Echaquan at a Quebec hospital, shortly after she recorded a Facebook Live that showed her screaming in distress and health-care workers abusing her, was the catalyst for a national campaign targeting anti-Indigenous racism in our health system.
RISE Against Racism, which will officially launch later this year, is an initiative created by the First Nations Health Managers Association, in partnership with the First Peoples Wellness Circle and the Thunderbird Partnership Foundation.
The campaign, said one of its key organizers, comes on the heels of Echaquan’s death on Sept. 28, 2020, at Centre hospitalier de Lanaudiere in Saint-Charles-Borromee , Que. Echaquan was admitted to hospital with stomach pains two days prior to her death. She was restrained and administered morphine, despite her concerns she might be allergic to it. She live-streamed on Sept. 28, during which at least two hospital employees could be heard insulting and berating her in French. She died later that day. Her family later said she was allergic to morphine. A nurse and an orderly were subsequently dismissed from the hospital.
“You say the words very delicately that we have to come back to remind ourselves about where we are in 2022,” said Marion Crowe, CEO of the First Nations Health Managers Association and vice-chair of the board of governors at the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute.
Crowe said Echaquan’s very tragic and public death, unfortunately, isn’t the first time such a tragedy involving an Indigenous Canadian played out in the public.
“We all know about the tragic death of Brian Sinclair, who was literally ignored to death in Winnipeg in a hospital,” Crowe said.
On Sept. 21, 2008, Sinclair waited 34 hours for medical attention at Winnipeg’s Health Sciences Centre and died waiting. He’d developed rigor mortis by the time staff attended to him. “Joyce Echaquan’s story out of Quebec is really what started the dialogue,” about the need for real change, Crowe said.
Several meetings with Indigenous partners and health-care officials produced a consensus: “We have a lot of work to do,” Crowe said.
“When somebody has the courage to film themselves in a hospital the way Joyce did, and we saw the horrific ways she was being treated by those we entrust the most — health-care workers who care for us in our greatest times of need — that speaks volumes,” Crowe said. “And it’s one instance that just happened to be captured on video.”
RISE Against Racism will focus on hospitals, health-care providers, health authorities and medical schools in a bid to change problematic biases and perceptions by promoting mutual respect, understanding and empathy toward Indigenous Peoples seeking health services, according to a news release from the campaign. Along with print marketing, the campaign will also produce a series of TV interviews, radio interviews and commercials, along with public service messages to communities informing them of available resources.
“I’ve seen racism, felt racism first-hand,” Crowe said. “I can be present in a hospital and until they see that R on my health card in Saskatchewan, saying I’m registered, you can see the transition of people’s faces. I look white, but I’m First Nations and they don’t know that until they get that health card — and the day and night difference is atrocious.”
Crowe, who is from Piapot First Nation in Saskatchewan, said the lack of education of Indigenous history and studies across Canada is partly to blame for such a campaign even being needed. Atrocious stories playing out in the media should not be what it takes to raise awareness and educate, she said.
“There are a number of things that really pushed these horrifying stories that the rest of the population just doesn’t comprehend or understand because we haven’t been taught it in school,” she said. “The education system has really failed in telling the story of the history and the richness of culture that existed pre-Colonialism and that first point of contact. And I think that’s an epic failure.
“It’s a lack of education and awareness and that is why we have created the RISE Against Racism campaign,” Crowe said. “It’s everything we’ve heard in the national dialogues on anti-Indigenous racism in Canada’s health system.”
Crowe said she envisions a national health system built on equality “in which we can walk two worlds, where we have spaces where we can access Western medicine, but also where we can create space that is safe and allows Indigenous populations to practice their health teachings as well, whether that’s creating smudging spaces, land for ceremonies, bringing back Indigenous languages,”
she said, adding that the RISE Against Racism campaign will create a space where racism can be reported.
Crowe had a very clear messages to those affected, those who can help and to those responsible for the inequality in Canada’s health system.
To those affected by racism in our health system, she said:
“Canada has heard. Through various reports, the (Truth and Reconciliation Commission report) , missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls reports, there are more reports than we can count, but now is the time for action. I feel hopeful for the first time in a long time that we are going to move the measurement needle and increase the number of years that we live less than the rest of the population because of all the health inequities out there. I say to everybody, you have to report it, we have to document it. We’re not going to be able to provide measurement and effectively change the systems without everybody being involved.”
Crowe did acknowledge Canada’s efforts to create dedicated resources for Indigenous Canadians.
“I look at the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations in Saskatchewan, who are creating an ombudsman position for anti-Indigenous racism. I look at the new president-elect of the Canadian Medical Association, Dr. Alika Lafontaine, our very first indigenous CMA President whose created a whole system on reporting racism. I think that we are in an era where we’ve gone from being angry Indians pounding on the door to get up the table? We’re at tables now, and let’s not be tokens. Let’s use our voice to advocate for the services that we desperately need to change the outcome.”
To non-Indigenous Canadians, especially those who may be witness to inequalities inside our health facilities: “Rise! If you see something, say something. Rise against racism. Be allies in the approach. Do your due diligence on personal education as well.”
And to those responsible for the mistreatment or hate toward Indigenous patients: “To those who are in hospitals, health authorities, any kind of health organization delivering services to Indigenous patients, I would say please understand cultural competence and cultural safety. We have to be able to deliver health services in a cultural humility-type way where we understand the population, that this specific population has been underserved, underfunded and has greater health inequities. It’s is on their backs that we (get) the privilege to thrive in Turtle Island. We owe it to all patients to give equal, equitable and quality services, too.”
Jan Murphy is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter who works out of the BellevilleIntelligencer. The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada.