Systemic racism: a shared responsibility

Systemic racism: a shared responsibility

Leading Indigenous rights advocate Michèle Audette travelled to Joliette with her step-daughter to support Joyce Echaquan’s family, who were in a state of shock the day after the Atikamekw mother of seven died in hospital. We asked Michèle what message she wanted to give to health and social services workers who are deeply concerned and shaken by the systemic racism exposed by Joyce shortly before her death.

“Joyce’s death is a brutal confirmation of the stories I’ve heard all my life in kitchens and community centres from the Yukon to Prince Edward Island,” said Michèle, who found it hard to watch the video that Joyce live streamed from her cell phone, recording the insults openly hurled at her by the people who were supposed to be ensuring her care.

The seasoned activist has seen and heard a lot of painful things, having served as one of the five commissioners who conducted the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. Her past experience includes terms of office as president of Quebec Native Women (Femmes autochtones du Québec – from 1998 to 2004, and 2010 to 2012), associate deputy minister for the status of women within Québec’s Ministry of Citizen Relations and Immigration (2004 to 2007), and president of the Native Women’s Association of Canada (2012 to 2014). In 2019 she was appointed senior advisor for reconciliation and Indigenous education at Laval University, a position she still holds today. It’s an impressive track record for a 49-year-old mother of five. Michèle was born to a Québécois father and an Innu mother, whom she speaks of lovingly, and grew up in Schefferville, a town her family reached in a train car reserved for “savages.” As a gifted child who never slowed down, she wanted to become an art teacher so that she could promote Indigenous culture. But so far, Michèle’s commitments in fighting for justice have not left her time to complete her university studies.

Reflecting on the fateful events in Joliette, Michèle remarks, “From now on, no one can say that these kinds of things are buried in the past or only happen elsewhere.” But she has no inclination to accuse specific people, groups or institutions and compromise alliances that she hopes will lead to change. Antagonizing the various parties concerned just isn’t her way. “This situation was caused by multiple factors and a series of actions. Some of the people involved weren’t even aware of their own biases. This is an opportunity for us to open people’s eyes and restate our demands.”

After seeing so many inquiries and reports put on the back burner, which demands should take priority?

“We have to demand rigorous accountability and call for a temporary, transitional or, better yet, permanent body to monitor implementation of the various recommendations made to institutions, the police, youth protection services, etc. This body should also provide explanations as to why certain recommendations aren’t being carried out.”

Education is another crucial area. “It’s time that children were told the real story in history,” which differs substantially from the colonial and paternalistic myths that they are currently being fed. Education on Indigenous realities should start in daycare and be provided at every level right up to professional orders. Public awareness initiatives pop up fairly regularly, depending on the latest trends, but aren’t sustained long enough to maximize their impact. We need framework legislation to combat discrimination, so we’re not at the mercy of inconsistent political policies. “If there are no legal obligations, there is nothing to guarantee the continuity of (anti-discrimination) measures. I’ll stand with whoever has the courage to put forward that legislation.”

It’s clear that Michèle hasn’t ruled out running for public office again. But next time it will be at the provincial level, once she has recovered from the ordeal of her experiences as a commissioner for the National Inquiry.* Gathering statements about painful events that have remained buried in silence for years or even decades is a heavy responsibility to shoulder. “The people who come forward to share their stories expect a lot from those who encouraged them to speak up. Some discover an inner strength they didn’t know they had, but others end up in a dark place.”

Should we continue sending non-Native workers into Indigenous communities? For Michèle, the answer is yes, as training an increasing number of resource people from these communities is crucial. When Natives and non-Natives work side by side, they influence one another and the shared experience helps dispel preconceived notions and biases.

When asked if she has a message for health and social services workers, Michèle responds in her usual manner, marked by generosity, combativeness and a lack of bitterness: “Each of us needs to remember that we all have the power to instigate change. We have a shared responsibility in what happened, and in what happens next. Whether or not we feel a sense of guilt is up to us, but neither finger-pointing nor guilt will bring about the changes we want. It’s pointless to get bogged down in blaming others or ourselves – we need to find ways to do better. There are good people out there. I’m confident that we’ll be welcomed with respect and dignity.”

Are you distressed by what happened to Joyce Echaquan at the Joliette Hospital? Sign the petition calling for measures to fight systemic racism in the health and social services sector, available in French on the National Assembly website.


* In 2019, the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls submitted a report specific to Québec.

Information gathered by: Élisabeth Circé-Côté and Laure Letarte-Lavoie | Written by: Chantal Mantha