MONTREAL — Crowds of protesters marched through downtown Montreal on Saturday, calling for justice for Joyce Echaquan, an Indigenous woman who was subjected to insults as she lay dying in hospital.
Echaquan, an Atikamekw woman, filmed hospital staff insulting her and making degrading comments on Monday while she was in clear distress and pleading for help in a Joliette, Que., hospital.
Protesters called for the Quebec government to acknowledge the existence of systemic racism in the province and to take real action against the discrimination Indigenous people face.
Several speakers who addressed the crowd said the government has tools to act – the report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the report of the Viens Commission, a provincial inquiry into the relationship between Indigenous people and certain Quebec public services – but hasn’t put those into practice.
The protest came the same day that Public Security Minister Genevieve Guilbault announced that she has asked the coroner’s office to conduct a public inquiry into Echaquan’s death.
Echaquan’s death took an emotional toll on some participants. Alisha Tukkiapik, the head of Quebec Solidaire’s national indigenous committee, had tears in her eyes as she addressed the crowd.
“We are humans too, we have rights too,” she said. “We often get called ‘savages’ but look at the people who are doing this.”
Premier Francois Legualt has acknowledged that there is racism against Indigenous people in Quebec but has repeatedly maintained that systemic racism doesn’t exist in the province.
But Ellen Gabriel, a prominent Mohawk activist present at the protest, said those comments are further evidence of systemic racism.
“(Legault is) ignorant of Quebec and Canada’s colonial history and he should be held responsible as one of the people who continues to deny Indigenous people their dignity and human rights,” Gabriel said.
Legualt’s refusal to acknowledge systemic racism was also a sticking point for Picard, the Chief of the Assembly of First Nations Quebec-Labrador.
“I think the premier should wake up and look around,” Picard said in an interview at the protest. “If we want to change things, we have to be able to name those things by name.”
Picard was scheduled to meet Legualt on Friday morning but cancelled. He said the cancellation was because Legualt wouldn’t let him bring Atikamekw chiefs to the meeting — an allegation Legualt has denied.
However, Picard said he’s willing to meet with Legualt in the future.
“There needs to be a political engagement. But we need to have the right conditions for it,” he said.
The protest, which at times stretched for more than six city blocks, was the largest held in the city since it moved to Quebec’s highest COVID-19 alert level.
Participants wore masks and organizers issued frequent reminders to maintain physical distancing.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 3, 2020.
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This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship.
Jacob Serebrin, The Canadian Press