Nurses fired after Atikamekw woman said they ‘humiliated’ her while she sought treatment


Six months after Joyce Echaquan filmed staff at the hospital in Joliette, Que., attacking her with racist insults, hours before she died, another Atikamekw woman has come forward with troubling allegations of racism.

Six months after Joyce Echaquan captured staff at the hospital in Joliette, about 70 km northeast of Montreal, attacking her with racist insults hours before she died, another Atikamekw woman has come forward with troubling allegations.

Jocelyne Ottawa, 62, said she was treated with disdain by two nurses at the local health clinic in Joliette, which she visited last Friday to have a bandage changed on her foot.

"One of them told me, when she saw my name in the folder: "We're going to call you Joyce, for short,' Ottawa recalled in an interview with Radio-Canada.

"Then they asked me if I could sing them a song in Atikamekw."

Ottawa also said that one of the nurses took her cellphone and that, when she realized it was missing, she was told: "I have it in my hand." Ottawa told her: "You have no business looking at my cellphone."

Incident under investigation

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?'"

The nurses have been suspended without pay and the incident is under investigation by the regional health authority, the CISSS de Lanaudière, which operates the clinic and the hospital.

The woman's story has renewed concern about the way Indigenous people are treated by health-care workers in Joliette and across Quebec.

Echaquan died in the hospital after she used her cellphone to film staff making derogatory comments about her. The video, which was posted live to Facebook, was shared around the world.

Quebec's Indigenous Affairs Minister Ian Lafrenière said it's clear there is more work to do. But he maintained the government's controversial position that systemic racism does not exist in the province.

Change will take time, he said, and training will need to be implemented across the province and even then, attending a course won't solve everything.

"I'm so sorry. I'm so shocked. I'm so disappointed … Can we guarantee that it won't happen again? The answer is no."

The health authority is taking the allegations "extremely seriously," Caroline Barbir, the interim head of the CISSS de Lanaudière, said in an interview. The previous president was removed from his post last December in the wake of Echaquan's death.

The CISSS de Lanaudière, which operates the clinic and the hospital in Joliette, said it has a zero-tolerance policy for racist behaviour and that the allegations will be taken seriously. (Jean-Michel Cotnoir/Radio-Canada)

In a statement, Barbir added that she has asked a cultural liaison, who was hired after Echaquan's death, to reach out to Ottawa.

The two nurses were among more than 4,200 CISSS employees who attended a cultural safety awareness session, an approach put in place in November. Further training is planned for health-care professionals across the province.

Nancy Bédard, president of the province's largest nurses union, the FIQ, said her organization is committed to the fight against violence and racism, whether based on gender, race or cultural background.

"We strongly denounce any gesture and any behaviour conveying intolerance or racism. "

The case for Joyce's Principle

For Sipi Flamand, deputy chief for the Atikamekw Council of Manawan, the latest incident is further proof the province must adopt what is called "Joyce's Principle," which aims to guarantee that Indigenous people have equitable access to health and social services without discrimination.

"As long as Joyce's Principle is not adopted, there will still always be systemic racism and the Quebec government has the obligation to recognize it," Flamand said.

Joyce Echaquan's death, following racist remarks, last year at the hospital in Joliette, led to calls for Indigenous people to have equitable access to health and social services without discrimination. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)

Ottawa said she returned to the clinic on Monday, despite being unsettled by her earlier experience.

"I have no choice. I need care," she said.

"I'd like to tell them that we, Indigenous people, are human beings in our own right. And we have a right to get the same care as any other individual no matter their race."

With files from Alison Northcott, Brennan Neil and Radio-Canada's Mélissa François

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