Editor’s note: Joyce Echaquan filmed the racism she suffered at the Joliette Hospital in Québec, moments before her death on Sept. 28, 2020. Her death occurred on the one-year anniversary of the Report of the Public Inquiry Commission on relations between Indigenous Peoples and certain public services in Québec.
As a nurse, as a chronic disease patient, and as an Indigenous woman, I could not possibly be more upset by the video streamed by Joyce Echaquan as she died in that Québec emergency room.
As a nurse, I see this kind of treatment far too often. Coworkers make off-handed remarks, some blatantly racist. I get a lot of the “but not you” comments after making my own heritage known. I use my light-skinned privilege to tell these people I grew up on a reserve, with some stereotypes —I have a single mom and a dead alcoholic dad— but my family is mostly sober and university educated. They’re good, smart people .. and we’re not special because of it. I know more sober and educated “Indians” than I do drunk drop-outs. I educate these people I work with, but also make sure they feel some shame and are forced into some level of self-reflection, know that I am the rule, not the exception.
Also, as a nurse it is my duty to provide care for everyone regardless of their socioeconomic background, racial background, education, place of origin, addictions, trauma, sex or gender orientation, or literacy. Formal education doesn’t make me a valuable Indigenous person —it just gives me a platform to be a voice for my people. We often forget how much value each individual has in this world.
As a patient, I have been denied services that almost cost me my own life. Several times I have been labeled drug-seeking, dismissed by doctors and other health care professionals, and denied medication and treatment. Once, it was a ruptured vessel in my lung. Once it was a bowel blockage that almost required surgery. Once it took so long to diagnose my pain that my liver was in full blown cirrhotic liver failure by the time someone listened to me (praise the lord for Dr. Gracie!). It hangs over my head every time I go to an ER and I have to fight for myself. Every time I meet a new doctor or nurse and explain my health history/justify my need for care: It. Is. Always. There.
I have seen it happen to other Indigenous women in my life. A young girl denied a rape kit at 15 because she was “a drunk”. The pain of a cancer patient in remission ignored so long that by the time they found her new tumors, there was no hope. Heart attacks called indigestion. Appendicitis called a hangover. Etc. Etc. Etc.
Denying systemic racism is useless. Saying you care is useless. We need change. We need allies.
If you work in health care, you need to be actively anti-racist. It’s not enough to hold the values yourself. Educate others and be a good ally, because it is so tiring to do all the work ourselves.
Paulina Meader is an LPN in K’jipuktuk (Halifax) who is from Membertou First Nation. This commentary was first published on her Facebook page on Sept. 29, 2020.