In nurses’ firing, union calls for due process, while First Nations leaders hope broader concerns aren’t lost


The union representing two nurses accused of racist treatment against an Atikamekw woman say they should not have been fired so quickly. But Indigenous leaders hope the controversy doesn't overshadow broader concerns about discrimination in the health-care system.

Ghislain Picard, Chief of the Assembly of First Nations for Quebec and Labrador, said he stands by Jocelyne Ottawa.(Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

The two nurses accused of racist treatment against an Atikamekw woman should not have been fired before the incident was investigated fully, a representative for the local union says, in a controversy that has quickly escalated to include the provincial government and Indigenous leaders.

Stéphane Cormier, president of the Syndicat interprofessionnel de la santé de Lanaudière, said Friday the nurses' dismissal happened without a proper investigation by the regional health authority.

According to Cormier, the usual procedure involves collecting testimony from everyone involved over a period of three or four weeks.

But in this case, the nurses who treated Jocelyne Ottawa at a clinic in Joliette, Que., were suspended Monday at the end of the day and then fired the following day.

In a series of interviews, Cormier argued the firing by the CISSS de Lanaudière was the result of political pressure, given the high-profile nature of the complaint, brought forward six months after the death of Joyce Echaquan.

"You can tell me that the CISSS is responsible, but I tell you that the CISSS has never fired people in this way," he told Radio-Canada.

Ottawa, 62, said earlier this week she was treated with disdain by two nurses at the clinic in Joliette, which she visited to have a bandage changed on her foot.

According to Ottawa, one of the nurses asked if they could call her Joyce. The nurses also asked her to sing them a song in Atikamekw, Ottawa said, and took her cellphone.

We have to find a way to stand our ground. This has happened too much in the past.

– Ghislain Picard

Ottawa said she felt humiliated and intimidated and, later, posted a message on Facebook about her experience.

"I told myself: 'Why are they saying this to me? Is it to mock Joyce, once again?'"

Cormier said the nurses are in shock and did not mean any harm. They had both followed cultural sensitivity training the CISSS put in place following Echaquan's death in September.

Cormier said asking for a song was clumsy, but he said they wanted to put into practice what they learned about showing interest in Atikamekw culture.

He also said the nurses thought Joyce was a nickname for Jocelyne, and they were not referring to Joyce Echaquan.

Cormier said the incident could have been handled differently and led to a broader conversation. The nurses are expected to hold a news conference on Monday.

In a statement following Cormier's comments, Caroline Barbir, interim president of the CISSS de Lanaudière, said the health authority gathered "the necessary testimonies" before making the decision to fire the two nurses.

Barbir said they concluded there had been a "breach of the establishment's code of ethics and of the code of ethics and ethics of the profession."

'This has happened too much': Picard

Ghislain Picard, the Quebec and Labrador regional chief for the Assembly of First Nations, said he stands by Jocelyne Ottawa.

He said he hopes the controversy doesn't overshadow broader concerns of discrimination in the health-care system.

"The reaction by the union is no surprise to us," he said.

"We have to find a way to stand our ground. This has happened too much in the past."

Jennifer Brazeau, executive director of the Native Friendship Centre in Quebec's Lanaudière region, said the union's claims were "a bit ridiculous."

"I don't see how it could have been misinterpreted," she said. "Normally, you don't make a connection with an Indigenous person by asking them to sing a song."

In an interview on Radio-Canda's , Benoit Charette, the minister responsible for fighting racism, denied any political interference in the CISSS's decision to fire the nurses.

But he said the government has taken a strong stance that racism will not be tolerated in access to public services.

With files from Julia Page and Radio-Canada's Espaces Autochtones

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