Chief of Joyce Echaquan’s community says trust in Quebec health care system returning

JOLIETTE, Que. — Members of an Atikamekw community northeast of Montreal are slowly regaining their trust in Quebec’s health-care system, a year after Joyce Echaquan died in a hospital northeast of Montreal, according to Chief Paul-Emile Ottawa.

“Confidence is slowly returning,” Ottawa, the chief of the Atikamekw Council of Manawan, told reporters Thursday at a joint press conference with the regional health authority that manages the hospital where Echaquan died in September 2020.

He said he’s “very happy and particularly proud” of the steps taken by the regional health board to improve its relationship with the Atikamekw community.

“We’re taking our first steps, but never has such collaboration existed in the past,” Ottawa said. “There are changes that have taken place, but there are definitely still things to improve. So, we’re working very hard to ensure that our goals of reconciliation are met.”

Earlier this week, coroner Gehane Kamel said Echaquan, an Atikamekw mother of seven, would likely still be alive if she were a white woman and that systemic racism “undeniably” contributed to her death. Kamel’s report found that her demise was accidental, but avoidable.

The coroner concluded Echaquan’s initial diagnosis was based on prejudice and she wasn’t properly monitored before finally being transferred to intensive care. Echaquan died of a pulmonary edema that was linked to a rare heart condition.

Maryse Poupart, who was named CEO of the regional health authority in March, said she welcomed the coroner’s recommendations for her agency, adding that all eight recommendations had either been implemented or were part of existing plans.

Kamel also recommended that the Quebec government acknowledge the existence of systemic racism and root it out of institutions. Quebec Premier Francois Legault has denied that systemic racism exists in Quebec.

When asked if she acknowledged the existence of systemic racism, Poupart said she appreciated things have to change at the health board, but she said she wouldn’t enter into a debate on semantics.

The health agency has hired several staff members to help improve relations with Atikamekw patients and a woman from Manawan has been appointed to the authority’s board, Poupart said. Thirty per cent of employees have completed a sensitivity training session, she said, adding that a more in-depth training program will be implemented later this fall.

A designated staff member to receive complaints from members of Indigenous communities will soon be hired, Poupart said. Steps are also being taken to improve staff-patient ratios, another issue that was raised in the coroner’s report.

Poupart said the process of improving relations with the Atikamekw people is ongoing and reconciliation takes time.

“We can’t think that it will be done quickly — that would be a monumental mistake in terms of cultural security,” she said.

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