Marc Miller Indigenous Services Canada Joyce Echaquan

Miller: Prejudice, misconceptions about Indigenous people cause deaths

“People who look like me drink a whole hell of a lot more, yet I don’t get that perception if I go into a hospital.”

In the midst of a coroner’s inquest into the death of Joyce Echaquan in Joliette last September, Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller commented on the proceedings in a press conference on Wednesday. Echaquan, a 37-year-old Atikamekw woman, died after being verbally abused with racist slurs and other insults by nurses, and being neglected in her hospital room. Echaquan herself captured some of this abuse on Facebook Live, sparking an international controversy. During the inquest last week, one of the nurses, whose names are not public due to a publication ban, apologized to Echaquan’s family, claiming that her behaviour was abnormal because she was overworked.

“It isn’t enough, quite frankly, and it isn’t limited to that hospital,” Miller said, referring to the inquest. “What (needs to come out) is the very, very painful truths about prejudice, racism and the impacts of systemic racism. We have a heck of a lot of work to do, and we have financial supports in the budget to address it around the country, not only health transformation but tackling racism and systemic racism in the healthcare system head-on.”

“The fact that those perceptions exist with respect to Indigenous people is causing people to die — that is documented in the medical profession. It’s a complete prejudice. You just need to look at generalized levels of people who don’t drink, and they’re higher in Indigenous communities. People who look like me drink a whole hell of a lot more, yet I don’t get that perception if I go into a hospital.”

Joyce Echaquan montreal march Mayor Valérie Plante
Joyce Echaquan

Miller also noted that improving health care services for Indigenous people in Canada involves more than dealing with outward racism.

“Implicit, even unconscious biases are leading to negative health outcomes and killing people, not by the fault of any product or medical practice but by people’s beliefs and views and how that impacts the diagnosis. (These are) highly educated people — it takes a lot to become a nurse, it takes a lot to become a doctor, but that perception (of Indigenous people) remains. That was the case notably with Joyce Echaquan. The testimony of the nurse is further evidence of that.”

“We absolutely have to face this. We cannot sweep this under the carpet. Can you imagine an individual who is so vulnerable coming to seek help in hospital and what did they get? A worse outcome because of their race. We cannot tolerate second class citizens in this country. If we do that, how many lives are we going to be losing?”

— Dr. Tom Wong, Director General and Chie​f Medical Officer of Public Health, Indigenous Services Canada

Miller added that the racism in health care is so commonplace that it’s come to inform public policy, and that all levels of government need to address the problems to fix them.

“What’s most painful is that it’s normalized,” Miller said. “There will be people who refuse to go get treated because of that apprehension, and that has guided everything, even the vaccine rollout and how we have to be culturally responsive. It’s under-reported but it’s happening across Canada.

“To paraphrase Minister (Carolyn) Bennett — she’s a doctor and very passionate about these issues — you can’t mend what you can’t measure,” he added, answering a reporter’s question about how systemic racism in health care can be remedied. “With systemic racism, there’s work across the board to be done. We have to play the role at the federal level — we have a responsibility over health in Canada, we have a responsibility on reserve. We also have the role to convene our provincial and territorial counterparts with jurisdictional expertise in the field and bring them all on board.”

The at-times controversial coroner’s inquest into the death of Joyce Echaquan continues this week.

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