Atikamekw leaders taken aback by Quebec government refusal to adopt Joyce's Principle

MONTREAL — Atikamekw leaders in Quebec say they are disappointed by the provincial government's refusal to adopt measures aimed at improving Indigenous health care this week over a reference to systemic racism in the recommendations.

The Atikamekw of Manawan Council and the Council of the Atikamekw Nation released the set of measures dubbed Joyce's Principle in a document in mid-November, urging Ottawa and Quebec City to adopt them.

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They're named for Joyce Echaquan, a 37-year-old Atikamekw mother of seven who died in hospital in Joliette, Que., in September after filming staff using derogatory slurs against her.

Video of her ordeal circulated widely on social media and prompted widespread indignation across the country.

In the wake of her death, her family and the community called for a series of measures to assure that Indigenous people have equitable access to health services without discrimination.

But the Coalition Avenir Quebec government balked at a motion presented this week by the Opposition Liberals asking the government to accept the principles as a whole, citing the reference to systemic racism.

"We don't have the same definition of systemic racism, that's the only part of it we put aside," Indigenous Affairs Minister Ian Lafreniere told reporters Friday.

Sipi Flamand, vice-chief of Manawan, an Atikamekw community about 250 kilometres north of Montreal, said it's clear systemic racism is taboo because the government doesn't want to offend its electorate.

"Astonished, two months after tragic death of Joyce Echaquan, we see there hasn't been other actions taken by the government and Atikamekw nation created Joyce's Principal to collaborate and see changes in the health care system," Flamand said on Saturday.

The stubborn refusal to acknowledge the repercussions and the very existence of systemic racism against Indigenous people despite evidence means the government response to the issue will fall short, he added.

Flamand acknowledged Quebec's recent $15 million investment to increase cultural security among First Nations and Inuit communities and ensure they are provided with care that respects their identity.

The numerous recommendations in Joyce's Principle include that the federal government revise its financing model for health and social services working with Indigenous groups, and that Quebec set up an ombudsperson for Indigenous health.

"But Joyce's Principle is the essential element to obtain cultural security," Flamand said, adding the campaign to see it adopted will continue.

In a statement, Manawan Chief Paul-Emile Ottawa lamented that despite providing the Quebec government with simple and concrete solutions to help build trust with the health system, "the government's responses remind us that the political will is not there."

The Chief of the Assembly of First Nations Quebec-Labrador, Ghislain Picard, called on the parties to quickly implement the measure as is.

"What is at stake here, on a human, social and political level, must leave no room for partisan pettiness," he said in a statement.

Lafreniere said his government is committed to adopting the measures in the document and fighting racism, but noted the Legault government's opposition to the term systemic racism should come as no surprise.

The Quebec government has refused to acknowledge systemic racism in the province and Lafreniere said the position was made clear to the Atikamekw during discussions in recent weeks.

"We agree to disagree on the systemic approach, us and the First Nations," Lafreniere said. "They might be disappointed, but they can't be surprised."

Gregory Kelley, the LIberal indigenous affairs critic who brought the motion, said he hopes the Quebec government changes its tune, saying the Atikamekw aren't asking for Joyce's Principle to be only accepted in part.

"Systemic racism is written throughout the document, that the government has to accept it, they have to realize it exists in their institutions," Kelley said Saturday.

"They are the ones who experience this, they are not asking us to say this possibility could exist, they are saying to us it happens to us, we're telling you."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 28, 2020.

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