Echaquan family announces lawsuit against Quebec hospital in wake of coroner’s report

TROIS-RIVIERES — Joyce Echaquan’s family said Tuesday it would launch legal action against the hospital where she died, hours after a Quebec coroner said a combination of “undeniable” systemic racism and health-care system failings contributed to her death.

Lawyer Patrick Martin-Menard was flanked by Echaquan’s husband, Carol Dube, as well as other members of the family as he announced the civil suit.

Martin-Menard told reporters in Becancour, Que., that Echaquan was the victim of negligence “at several levels” and said her death was “triggered by a combination of deficient health-care and racist prejudices and misconceptions.” Details of the civil suit would be announced in the coming days, he added.

Dube, who was joined by one of his daughters, spoke quietly and kept his head bowed as he once again called for changes to a system that he said discriminated against Indigenous families and judged his wife for having had multiple children.

“Joyce is dead because she was Indigenous,” he said. “A woman with seven marvellous children _ what she had that was most beautiful was used against her in a system that still allows this kind of tragic situation to happen.”

Earlier Tuesday, coroner Gehane Kamel said that from the moment Echaquan entered the hospital in Joliette, Que., in 2020, she was falsely labelled as a drug addict and a “difficult” patient _ a label that would impact her care until her death two days later.

Kamel’s report into Echaquan’s death found that her demise was accidental, but avoidable. As she presented her report on Tuesday, Kamel said the 37-year-old Atikamekw woman would likely still be alive if she were a white woman.

The coroner reiterated her recommendation that the government should recognize the existence of systemic racism and make a commitment to root it out of institutions _ something the Legault government has steadfastly refused to do.

“We have witnessed an unacceptable death, and we must ensure that it is not in vain,” Kamel told reporters. “It is unacceptable that large sections of our society deny such a well-documented reality.”

In Quebec City, Premier Francois Legault told reporters he agreed that Echaquan was subjected to prejudice, discrimination and racism at the hospital northeast of Montreal. But he maintained that systemic racism does not exist in the province, blaming what happened to Echaquan on a few health-care employees and quoting a definition of “systemic” from the dictionary to back up his position.

“Is the entire education system, or health system racist? I believe the answer is no,” Legault said. “But it’s possible that at certain places, there are employees, groups of them who have discriminatory approaches. But to say that the entire system is racist, I can’t accept it.”

Echaquan filmed herself on Facebook Live as a nurse and an orderly were heard making derogatory comments toward her shortly before her death Sept. 28, 2020, at the Joliette hospital.

The video of her treatment went viral and drew outrage and condemnation, and the coroner’s final report into her death concluded her 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.

Kamel said she wouldn’t get involved in a political debate, but maintained that systemic racism was “undeniable” in Echaquan’s case.

“From the first minute she entered the hospital, a label was placed on Ms. Echaquan,” she said.

Kamel said medical staff, who assumed Echaquan was experiencing opioid withdrawal, failed to properly evaluate the medications she was taking and ignored the symptoms she described, including heart palpitations.

Later, after Echaquan became agitated and fell from bed twice, she was branded “theatrical” and strapped down. Health-care workers didn’t explore alternatives to calm her down or reassure her, such as calling the hospital’s Atikamekw liaison officer, Kamel said.

But while she maintained that racism played a part in Echaquan’s death, Kamel noted that it wasn’t the only factor. She said emergency room overcrowding and a lack of trained staff on the floor meant there weren’t enough people to supervise Echaquan once she was restrained. There was also was a failure to notice and react quickly enough when her condition began to deteriorate, the coroner added.

She urged decision-makers to give equal weight to her other recommendations, which include better staff-to-patient ratios, improved communication between health authorities when it comes to patient medication, and more training for staff on racial sensitivity and standards of care.

Kamel became emotional when she thought about Echaquan’s daughter trying to comfort her dying mother at her bedside, and she said her hope is that her report will be an invitation to a discussion and reconciliation with Indigenous groups.

“In the name of her partner, her children, for this Indigenous nation, let’s come together to extend a hand,” she said.

Martin-Menard said that in addition to the civil lawsuit, he would also be filing a complaint against Quebec’s order of nurses and the order of physicians, asking them to review the entirety of her care. He said he would also file a complaint with the province’s human rights commission.

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