What Joyce Echaquan knew

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Dr. Pam Palmater is a member of the Eel River Bar First Nation in New Brunswick and Chair in Indigenous Governance at Ryerson University.

Imagine being hospitalized with a serious health condition and instead of being treated with professional care and compassion by the hospital, the last words you hear from hospital staff are that you are a drain on the health-care system and better off dead. This is the experience of Joyce Echaquan, a 37-year-old Atikamekw mother of seven, who used her phone to record hospital staff in Joliette, Que., abusing her with racist and misogynistic insults before she died. A First Nations woman who dies after being told she would be better off dead raises serious questions about the impacts of systemic racism on the lifespan of First Nations.

A recent study published by the Canadian Medical Association Journal found that Indigenous peoples have a 30 per cent higher death rate post-surgery than non-Indigenous patients. Further, Indigenous patients suffered higher rates of post-surgical complications and hospital readmissions. We also know that cancer rates for First Nations are increasing and that First Nations women fare far worse in terms of breast cancer survival rates than non-First Nations patients. Many studies point to a lack of access to cancer screening, health-care supports and hesitancy to seek out medical care due to racist, sexist treatment by health-care professionals.

More than 9,000 people were interviewed for a report called “In Plain Sight: Addressing Indigenous-specific Racism and Discrimination in B.C. Health Care”; 185,000 data sets were reviewed and 600 cases logged. The report found that anti-Indigenous racism in health care is widespread and primarily targets First Nations. Racist stereotypes held by health-care workers about First Nations being drunks, drug seekers or less worthy of care manifest in ways that negatively impact the health and lifespan of First Nations due to denial of service, minimizing health concerns, rough treatment sometimes resulting in injuries, and medical mistakes and misdiagnosis rooted in racist assumptions. This has resulted in lethal outcomes for First Nations, with particular risks for women.