Joyce Echaquan was a First Nations woman in Quebec who had health problems. She was the mother of seven children. Her death was witnessed by herself: she was carrying a cell phone and recorded her treatment and her death. Now the world is watching what is irreversible.
I’ve appended some video versions of the story at the end of this post if you want to know more. Online one can see her death as she calls out for help only to be put down and insulted by three nurses and orderlies who find her disorderly and try to insult her into behaving.
Afterward, two government people sit at desks to hear constituents. In front of them one man makes a powerful plea for help, taking a knee and joined by Joyce’s teenaged son. His plea is in French, because this is Montreal, and it may include some of his tribal language. He puts his hands-together in the Catholic sign for prayer combined with the one-knee sports protest, both of which are recognized culture wide. This is done with great dignity.
Over the years I’ve heard many pleas, but none so sincere and humbly and totally made as this one. People are learning a new vocabulary of gestures. I wept. The woman who died had still managed to testify. How can we not witness?
There will be much discussion and the moral rules that will be raised are familiar. Many have died this way, but without a cell phone. Even persons present have not been as effective as the simple little cell phone. We have not heard from the hospital employees who were present and who lost their jobs. Their impulse will be to remove all cell phones.
When I worked at a hospital nursing wing a couple of decades ago, I met a crying woman in a wheelchair and stopped to see what was hurting her. The attendant, a big man, who was meant to help her had been aggravated by something, lost his temper and threw things around, which scared her. Evidently he was made angry by her submissiveness, her fear, her helplessness. Another older woman, a sweet middle-class white woman, was criticized for being needy, and wanting attention all the time. Nurses were slow to respond to her signals because they considered her “spoiled”. I was cautioned not to indulge her.
These individuals were not indigenous who suffer constantly from structural racism, but nevertheless were victims of cultural structuring.
Two things had an influence. One was the elimination of wards with multiple patients who could see what was happening. In the event of a death, screens were put up, but everyone knew what they meant. Private rooms were considered more dignified and indicative of middle-class standards of privacy. They also allowed secrecy.
The other structural change was the elimination of chaplains who were in theory meant to observe, to encourage right behavior (which could mean keeping patients quiet), and — in modern times — to recognize and adapt to cultural ways. Chaplains were eliminated because management saw them as troublemakers critical of some practices or felt that the community religious leaders should take care of the cultures of their own at their own cost.
Most of the stories about Joyce’s death have emphasized the issue of structural racism, that is, a prejudice shared by “everyone” and used to design laws and procedures that suit the majority’s ideas and give those in power an advantage over the poor, the less educated, the darker skinned, the stereotypically “lesser.” We have two “moralities”, one of them idealistic and the other one secret but powerful.
This attitude legitimizes lesser behavior — more intolerant, more strict, more rushed. In situations like hospitals with their increasing pressure on staff in order to make more money and increase efficiency, they are built-in excuses to threaten the lives of someone like Joyce, who said flatly, “Someday these people will kill me.”
Murder by misunderstanding, death by inattention. All shielded by resistance to the “Other,” the “lower,” the undeserving, the “little” people, the losers, when resources are limited. Each arranges the signals according to the values of their culture. It’s not just being prejudiced against all indigenous people. When I go into a store with old clothes and a ball cap jammed on my head, the clerks will follow me as a potential shoplifter.
When I was clergy in Saskatoon I had a post-mistress who constantly lectured me about my letters being sent to the US because to her mind I was a rich invader taking advantage of Canada. She did what she had to — weighed packages and sold stamps — but lectured me about making friends where I was.
I didn’t die, but I had something wrong with my eyes and the many barriers to trivial complaints prevented me from getting to an opthamologist until I returned to Montana. The problem turned out to be holes in my retinas. US people do not understand what universal health care means in practice unless they use free clinics. “Free” means hoops to jump through.
Prejudice is a biological mammal mechanism that increases the safety of an animal that identifies and rejects whatever is considered atypical or substandard. The white crow phenomenon. The pet monkey returned to the wild without knowing monkey protocol. Prejudice urges us to neglect through avoidance and use violence as rejection, both of them on a continuum from the annoying to the deadly. Much of being human is recognizing and redirecting these prehuman reflexes. Our stories are one of the major tools in motivating this important moral, religious, social work. The Good Samaritan, for an instance. It’s a form of salvation.
When I was working for the City of Portland, one of my jobs was to answer a question line for the Bureau of Buildings. So many of the questions were demands that a rule be followed though the rule didn’t exist, or such a complete blank about how things work that I got impatient enough to be rebuked by the boss, who could overhear.
One day an incoherent man called and I decided he was drunk, but I would be patient, so I told him, “Listen, mister, you’re drunk. Go drink some black coffee and call again in an hour when you sober up.” He got help somewhere else. It turned out he had MS. I was ashamed.
It is especially atrocious that out of prejudice Joyce was allowed to die in a hospital, a place we count on to recognize our vulnerabilities and protect us from them. Nurses are expected to withstand stress in special recognition of their duty to each of us when we suffer. We make trouble when we need help, and use what resources we have even if they don’t conform to what is expected and we make contact with outsiders who can continue to tell our story.