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Family files $2.7-million lawsuit over Indigenous woman's death in Quebec hospital

MONTREAL — The family of an Indigenous woman who was mocked by staff as she lay dying in a Quebec hospital in September 2020 filed a lawsuit Thursday seeking nearly $2.7 million in damages.
Carol Dubé, husband of Joyce Echaquan, reads a statement next to his daughter Wassihna during a memorial marking the first anniversary of the death of his wife in front of the hospital where she died in Joliette, Que. on Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2021. The family of an Atikamekw woman who was mocked by staff as she lay dying in a Quebec hospital in September 2020 has filed a civil suit seeking more than $2.6 million. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson

MONTREAL — The family of an Indigenous woman who was mocked by staff as she lay dying in a Quebec hospital in September 2020 filed a lawsuit Thursday seeking nearly $2.7 million in damages.

Joyce Echaquan, a 37-year-old Atikamekw mother of seven, filmed herself on Facebook Live as a nurse and an orderly were heard making derogatory comments toward her at a hospital in Joliette, Que., northeast of Montreal.

The video of her treatment in September 2020 went viral and drew outrage and condemnation across the province and the country.

The lawsuit filed in Joliette names the hospital as well as Dr. Jasmine Thanh, an attending doctor, and Paule Rocray, the former nurse who was caught on film insulting Echaquan. It seeks a total of $2,675,000 in compensatory and punitive damages.

The family and the community of Manawan marked the second anniversary of her death on Wednesday. Lawyer Patrick Martin-Ménard says the civil suit is about compensating the family for the loss of Echaquan.

"Of course no amount of money will bring Joyce back. The goal of the compensation is to try to help ... moving forward from the prejudice they've suffered," Martin-Ménard said.

An emotional Carol Dubé, Echaquan's husband, said he was hopeful the lawsuit would help with healing for him and those around him. “I’m still very lost," Dubé said, his voice trailing off. "This is a new chapter that's beginning."

The lawsuit, which contains allegations that have not been tested in court, claims negligence on the part of the hospital management.

Many of the problems Echaquan encountered were highlighted two years earlier during testimony from Manawan community members at a provincial inquiry examining relations between Indigenous communities and the provincial government, the suit alleges, but officials did not correct the situation.

The filing also claims that Thanh failed to properly investigate and assess Echaquan's condition and that Rocray failed to help Echaquan after she fell out of bed and instead made "racist" comments towards her.

A spokeswoman for the regional health board that oversees the hospital in Joliette declined to comment on the matter.

Echaquan's mother, Diane Dubé, said there's still a lot of sadness over the video and called on Premier François Legault to recognize the existence of systemic racism in the province, which he has refused to do.

“It’s difficult today to live this, but we want justice for my daughter, for Joyce,” Diane Dubé said through an interpreter.

Coroner Géhane Kamel concluded last year after an inquest that Echaquan's initial diagnosis, that she was going through withdrawal from opioids or narcotics, was faulty and based on prejudice. The coroner found she wasn't properly monitored before finally being transferred to intensive care, where she died of a pulmonary edema that was linked to a rare heart condition.

Kamel has said Echaquan would likely still be alive if she were a white woman and that systemic racism "undeniably'" contributed to her death.

In the aftermath of her death, the Atikamekw community drafted Joyce’s Principles, a series of measures aimed at ensuring equitable access to health care for Indigenous patients and recognizing systemic racism.

Legault's incumbent Coalition Avenir Québec government agreed to adopt much of the document, but it does not accept the reference to systemic racism. Atikamekw leaders at Thursday's news conference denounced that refusal.

"We need things to change and at the political level," said Grand Chief Constant Awashish of the Conseil de la Nation Atikamekw. He said he doesn't feel his people's concerns are being heard.

Legault this month apologized to Echaquan's husband after saying during a televised leaders debate that the racism situation at the hospital in Joliette was "settled.''

"Before this tragic event, things that should have changed did not change," Carol Dubé said Thursday. "We're still waiting."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 29, 2022.

Sidhartha Banerjee, The Canadian Press

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