On Sept. 28, 2020, Joyce Echaquan, a member of the Manawan First Nation in Canada, livestreamed the last moments of her life as she writhed and shouted in pain from her hospital bed. The video shows nurses at the Centre Hospitalier de Lanaudiere in Quebec mocking her, using sexist and racist words as they gave her morphine and ignored her concerns that she would have a reaction to it.
Echaquan died soon after, and in the video, the nurses can be heard saying in French that Echaquan was stupid and only good for sex. One told her she had made bad choices in life and asked her what her children would think of her behavior. Echaquan had originally gone to the hospital with stomach pains. She had prior heart issues that required a pacemaker, but it’s unclear whether her heart or stomach problems were the cause of death. Regional health authorities and a forensic pathologist who specializes in suspicious or negligent deaths will conduct investigations into the incident.
Echaquan’s death caused outrage throughout North America, and the Quebec Premier, François Legault issued a public apology to the family. One of the nurses has been fired, and the Echaquan family’s lawyer told al Jazeera he plans to file a complaint with police and open a criminal investigation into the full cause of her death.
As shocking as this story is, it’s just one of many such tales that take place in the U.S. and Canada each year. Legault made a similar apology to Indigenous people in October 2019 after the Viens Commission conducted a report that showed Native people faced systemic discrimination in Quebec.
Violence against Indigenous women — which often receives little media attention and is exacerbated by apathetic law enforcement investigations — is an ongoing epidemic in both the U.S. and Canada.
Shocking Numbers, Little Attention
Eighty-four percent of Native women report having experienced violence at some point in their lives according to Native Women’s Wilderness (NWW). Native women and girls are also murdered at a rate 10 times higher than other ethnicities. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), murder is the third leading cause of death for Indigenous women in the U.S. While the majority of these murders take place on Native land, the perpetrators are most often not Native, according to NWW. A report by the Urban Indian Health Institute says that while 5,712 cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls were reported in 2016 (the last year for which data is available), only 116 of these deaths were logged into the Department of Justice’s database. Lack of care on the part of authorities and overall poor communication between state, local and tribal law enforcement agencies contribute to this problem. Besides preventing these deaths from being brought to justice, advocates warn that this overwhelming lack of data on missing Indigenous women may be one of the key reasons why these murders keep occurring. When murders aren’t logged or reported, investigations can’t occur and the problem becomes even more invisible within our society. In 2018, the FBI announced to the Senate Committee of Indian Affairs that it was ramping up efforts to solve the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women, but so far, no headway has been made on that front after that initial announcement.
Violence in the Medical Field
Echaquan’s horrific death at the hands of her caretakers is just one example of the terrors Native women (and men) often face in healthcare as well. It’s another aspect of our society where such violence is all too accepted and common:
- Saskatchewan-based lawyer Alisa Lombard represents more than 100 Indigenous women who came forward recently with accounts of forced or coerced sterilization. Full details of these women’s accounts have yet to be released as the lawsuit is still pending, Al Jazeera reports.
- The 2008 death of a 45-year-old First Nations man Brian Sinclair in a Winnipeg, Manitoba emergency room triggered an investigation into that province’s treatment of Indigenous people. Sinclair was a double amputee who used a wheelchair and died after waiting for more than 34 hours to be seen in the emergency room of the Health Sciences Center Hospital. His body was experiencing rigor mortis by the time medical staff checked in on him, and an autopsy later revealed he had been dead for between two and seven hours. He died from a treatable bladder infection.
- A recent investigation of emergency rooms throughout British Columbia includes allegations that hospital staff regularly play a racist game where they bet on the blood alcohol level of Native patients.
In the U.S.
- The Wall Street Journal found that Indian Health Service — a federal agency designed to provide healthcare to Native Americans — has hired dozens of doctors with serious histories of malpractice. Many of these doctors continued committing malpractice against their Indigenous patients while under government employment. The issue is so complicated and severe that the agency reports have either settled or lost a total of 163 malpractice claims since 2006 alone.
With scenarios like these currently playing out across the country, combined with past travesties like the forced sterilization of Indigenous women in the 1970s, it’s no wonder Native Americans report an overall mistrust of the Western medical system. It also explains why Native Americans have significantly higher mortality rates for a number of preventable illnesses, including liver disease and diabetes, compared to other Americans.
Resources to Raise Awareness and Take Action
Solving deeply rooted issues like violence against Indigenous women begins with talking about the problem and knowing the names of those affected. The Sovereign Bodies Institute’s MMIWG2 Database offers case logs of missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls and two-spirit (gender non-conforming) people in the U.S. from 1900 to present.
Some U.S. organizations that support the “murdered and missing indigenous women” (MMIW) cause and fight for medical autonomy for Indigenous people include:
- Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women USA: Seeks to bring missing women home and support the loved ones of murdered women. This organization hosts a number of fundraising and educational events on the topic of missing and murdered Indigenous women and Indigenous advocacy.
- National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center: Provides a toolkit and collection of resources for loved ones of and advocates for missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.
- Coalition to Stop Violence Against Native Women: Seeks to stop violence against Native women by making change inside communities through policy, outreach and awareness.
- Association of American Indian Physicians: Provides educational forums, workshops and conferences in the medical disciplines for American Indian and Alaska Native physicians. Works to help students pursue a health profession career to increase the number of American Indian and Alaska Native medical professionals in the workforce.
- Center for American Indian Health: Works in partnership with American Indian and Alaska Native communities to raise the health status, self-sufficiency and health leadership of Native people to the highest possible level.