Joyce Echaquan, an Indigenous woman and mother of seven, died in a Joliette hospital on Sept. 28. This was after she filmed her cry for help, claiming she was overmedicated by the nurses. In the video we see nurses and attendants insulting her and making racist comments. Carol Dubé, Joyce’s partner, is adamant: “Systemic racism has contaminated the Joliette hospital and killed my partner.”
Joyce’s death has caused a shock wave throughout Quebec. Vigils and demonstrations have been held throughout the province. Two hospital employees have been fired and the government has launched two investigations. Following this tragedy, several members of the Atikamekw community have testified about their traumatic experiences at the hands of Joliette hospital staff: repeated racist remarks, discriminatory behaviour and criminal negligence leading to premature death.
Unfortunately this tragedy was not surprising. A year earlier, the report of the Viens Commission showed that the Quebec state perpetuates discriminatory practices towards Indigenous people and that they suffer from “systemic discrimination”. With regard to the Joliette hospital specifically, it stated: “[T]here was a great deal of testimony and also statements that were filed with the Commission indicating widespread dissatisfaction among the Atikamekw with respect to the Joliette hospital. […] we are talking about twenty (20) people.”
The Grand Chief of the Atikamekw Nation, Constant Awashish, maintains that little has changed since then. Indeed, of the 142 recommendations in the report, only two calls for action have been implemented by the Legault government, and about 50 are said to be “under way”. However, Québec solidaire co-spokesperson Manon Massé has stated that her questions concerning these projects remain unanswered.
So what concrete action has the government taken to address this problem?
On Oct. 2, 2019, Premier François Legault apologized to First Nations and Inuit. On Oct. 8, the Quebec National Assembly unanimously adopted a motion recognizing the main principles of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). Since then, there has been nothing more. The response of the government amounts to a few empty words and a piece of paper.
Moreover, even though the commission had been set up following denunciations of abuse by Indigenous women against police officers in Val-d’Or, the president of Quebec Native Women, Viviane Michel, noted that even in the report “there is absolutely nothing for the protection of women.”
Racism: systemic or individual?
Due to this tragic event, the debate about systemic racism has resumed. While the Grand Chief of the Atikamekw Nation and the Chief of the Assembly of First Nations Quebec and Labrador (AFNLQ) demand that Legault stop denying the presence of systemic racism in Quebec, the establishment politicians and their ideologues have been doubling down, denying that systemic racism exists.
Right-wing nationalist ideologue Mathieu Bock-Côté laid out the argument clearly in a debate on TVA: “We are faced with an undeniable manifestation of individual racism which we should condemn […] but is this a manifestation of systemic racism in the same sense that the theoreticians of systemic racism define it? No.” This was echoed by Legault who said: “There is racism in Quebec, we must fight this racism. The nurse, what she said, is totally unacceptable, and she was fired. Now to think that all nurses or the entire health-care system would have had this reaction, everyone would say ‘no’.” Deputy Premier Geneviève Guilbault made the same argument on the popular talk show, Tout le monde en parle.
It should not be surprising that these right-wingers are denying something so self-evident as systemic racism against Indigenous peoples. After all, they have spent the last few years perpetuating racism against immigrants and religious minorities. Bock-Côté, of whom Legault is a fan, has been a central theoretician behind the identitarian turn in the nationalist movement. The principal victims of this have been immigrants and religious minorities in particular. These ideas had their first major breakthrough in government policy with the Parti Québécois’s “Charter of Quebec Values” in 2013. The CAQ has continued this tradition since taking power in 2018 with the implementation of Bill 21, their “Quebec values” test and their attempts to limit the rights of foreign students.
And the Quebec Liberal Party is no better. When Liberal Leader Dominique Anglade was asked whether or not she considered Joyce’s death to be a case of systemic racism, she dodged the question, limiting herself to similar remarks as Legault, stating that the situation was “unacceptable” and that she could only “condemn” it. We shouldn’t forget that it was the Liberals who betrayed religious minorities when they implemented Bill 62 in 2017 banning face coverings.
In the flames of the ideological war over these questions, Québécois establishment politicians and journalists have systematically denied the existence of systemic racism in Quebec. When Québec solidaire moved a resolution this summer condemning systemic racism, the other parties only voted for it once the word “systemic” was removed. This has gone so far as the ridiculous situation in June where the Bloc Québécois was denying that there was systemic racism in the RCMP, even after this was recognized by the RCMP commissioner herself. Thus, while the main thrust of this nationalist identitarian propaganda has been attacks on immigrants and religious minorities, it is not surprising that these same politicians and demagogues also deny that there is systemic racism against Indigenous peoples.
The capitalist establishment in Quebec has fueled a general xenophobic mood to shift the dialogue away from class politics and towards scapegoating one or another section of the population. This strategy has been essential for the capitalist class in Quebec, who were given quite the scare when faced with the mass student and workers’ movements from 2012-2015. They constantly push these “debates” in order to divide workers and distract them from who the real enemy is.
Blood on their hands
Let’s not forget that these very same politicians and journalists recently turned their fire directly against Indigenous peoples. Thirty years after the Oka Crisis, when the Canadian and Quebec governments used the police and military to crush Indigenous people, Bock-Côté attacked the Mohawks, saying that the Quebecois were taken “hostage”, and that radical Mohawks “like nothing as much as provoking Quebec society.”
Going along with this analysis is the rejection of the fact that the land that we currently inhabit is unceded Indigenous territory. “We are not land thieves, but the founders of a country,” states Bock-Côté. For him, recognizing that we live on unceded land is a submission to Anglo-Canadian, anti-Quebec guilt propaganda—since, as he says, the Mohawks were “allies of the English and enemies of the French”.
And we can’t forget how these people acted when faced with the Wet’suwet’en solidarity movement this past January. Richard Martineau, another right-wing journalist with the Journal de Montréal, attacked the Wet’suwet’en who were opposing the pipeline project on their territory, criticizing their forms of traditional governance. When the Mohawks in Kahnawake erected a blockade of the railroad tracks in solidarity, Legault rushed to the rescue of Trudeau and the oil companies by slandering the Mohawks, claiming that they had “offensive, dangerous” weapons including AK-47s.
Quite clearly, the CAQ cannot be trusted to fight racism. Their denial of the systemic character of racism and their constant inaction is due to the fact that racism is an essential weapon for the ruling class to keep workers and the oppressed divided. Instead of blaming the CAQ and the successive capitalist governments who have underfunded and gutted the health-care system, the nurse of the Joliette hospital made Joyce feel guilty by saying, “we pay for that.” The ruling class also perpetuates racism in order to justify pipelines, mining and logging on Indigenous territories. People like Bock-Côté and Martineau have proven very useful to the ruling class, shifting the discourse towards scapegoating any group in society they can. The result of this is tragic events like the death of Joyce Echaquan. All these people have blood on their hands.
The root of systemic racism against Indigenous people: capitalist colonization
But what is systemic racism? Bock-Côté defines systemic racism as: “a system which produces noticeable racist effects in the statistical disparities between the groups that make up the population.” With this definition it is quite clear that this situation exists with regards to Indigenous peoples in Canada and Quebec.
However, it is one thing to recognize that a phenomenon exists; it is another thing altogether to combat it. In order to combat systemic racism, we need to understand where it comes from. What is the “system” which produces racism?
According to Manon Massé in her speech at the #JusticeforJoyce rally in Montreal: “Colonialism has polluted the minds of white people. I wish for us to have a revolution of the heart. Because that’s just the way we’re going to be able to really change things. That’s how we’re going to succeed in changing Mr. Legault’s ideas, who has a contemptuous discourse towards First Nations.” Unfortunately, this idea that racism is simply a system of ideas turns everything upside down and is a completely idealist conception of what racism is. There is a material basis for racism against Indigenous peoples and it has a long history.
Systemic racism against Indigenous people stems from centuries of brutal exploitation and genocide of Indigenous peoples by Canadian and Quebec capitalism. Even Mr. Viens recognized this in his report. In order to subjugate Indigenous peoples to the domination of the capitalist ruling class, the Canadian state confined Indigenous people to reserves, stole their land and destroyed their traditional (communal) way of life. This was then perpetuated through a cultural genocide via the residential schools, the last of which was closed only in 1996. Approximately 150,000 Indigenous children were abducted and uprooted from their families, cut off from their culture, forbidden to speak their language, and subject to horrific conditions of physical, sexual abuse and mistreatment.
Today, Indigenous peoples are one of the most oppressed groups in Quebec and Canada. Water is not safe to drink on many reserves. There is a shortage of 85,000 housing units on reserves; more than 80 percent of reserves have a median income below the poverty rate; and 46 percent of admissions to correctional services are Indigenous youth, even though they make up just 8 percent of the youth population (Statistics Canada, 2016-2017). The suicide rate is five to six times higher for Indigenous youth than for non-Indigenous youth. Indigenous women live on an average annual income of $13,300. Poverty makes them more vulnerable to violence, substance abuse, homelessness, sex work, etc. Between 1,200 and 4,000 Indigenous women have gone missing or been murdered in the last three decades.
It is on the basis of these miserable conditions that racist ideas are fomented in order to justify this horrible situation. We saw this with the racist comments of health-care workers at the Joliette hospital who told Joyce, “We’re going to take care of you because you can’t take care of yourself” and “you’re dumb as fuck”—as well as with a doctor who asked another Indigenous patient to sign a refusal of treatment, then ended by telling them to “get the fuck out of here.”
Fight the disease at its root
The horror at the Joliette hospital caused a wave of indignation, and activists, youth and workers are looking for solutions to end the oppression of Indigenous peoples.
So far, the leadership of Québec solidaire has maintained the mistaken approach of attempting to change the government’s mind. With the adoption of the motion last year by the National Assembly supporting UNDRIP, Massé believed the province was on the right track. “But we have to admit that one year later, it stopped on October 8,” she said, adding, “My disappointments are great, so I can’t even imagine the level of disappointment of First Nations people.” The gazelle has as much reason to be “disappointed” that the lion wants to eat it as Québec solidaire has to be disappointed by the inaction of the racist CAQ.
In response to the killing of Joyce Echaquan, Québec solidaire MNAs have tabled a motion seeking to force the Premier of Québec to quickly reach an agreement with Indigenous authorities to implement UNDRIP. In an Oct. 1 communiqué, Québec solidaire states that “There is still a long way to go before talking about reconciliation, but in two years, Québec solidaire has played and will continue to play a crucial role in getting the CAQ government to move in the right direction.” And yet, if the adoption of the UNDRIP last year did not lead to any action by the government, can we really hope that a law guaranteeing the implementation of UNDRIP will lead to anything? We should not have any illusions that we can somehow force the CAQ to have a change of heart.
The systemic oppression of Indigenous people is not just a “culture” or an “ideology” which conveys prejudice or discriminatory behaviour. Systemic racism is not just a system of “bad ideas” in the heads of a few people. There is a material foundation to these ideas which must be fought. That foundation is capitalism. A “revolution of the heart” is therefore insufficient to combat this menace. Besides, recent polls have shown that the vast majority of the population of Quebec are on the side of Indigenous people.
Systemic racism against Indigenous people is rooted in the appalling socio-economic conditions so many face. These conditions are a direct product of the capitalist system in Canada and Quebec, and the capitalist state, which has abused and robbed Indigenous people for centuries and continues to do so. In other words, the system behind “systemic racism” is nothing less than the capitalist system; that is, the domination of big business and production for the profit of rich parasites.
In a similar way, Martin Luther King brilliantly linked the struggle for African-American emancipation to their socio-economic conditions. “You can’t talk about solving the economic problem of the Negro without talking about billions of dollars,” King said. “You can’t talk about ending the slums without first saying profit must be taken out of slums. You’re really tampering and getting on dangerous ground because you are messing with folk then. You are messing with captains of industry. Now this means that we are treading in difficult water, because it really means that we are saying that something is wrong with capitalism.”
There are more than enough resources to put an end to poverty in Indigenous communities. It is high time that the trade unions and the left lead a campaign of concrete demands that can eradicate this ill. We must demand an end to the boil-water advisory crisis, call for good jobs and the building of decent housing, and make the bosses pay for all this. These demands must be combined with a general campaign against racism wherever it rears its ugly head.
However, we can expect that the bosses will not want to pay. This is because these demands directly contradict the profit motive at the heart of the capitalist system. As long as the state remains under the control of capitalists and their representatives in the bosses’ parties, the quest for profit will continue to keep Indigenous people in these conditions and will perpetuate racism to justify this situation. There can be no “reconciliation” between Indigenous peoples and the ruling class which is responsible for systemic racism. Wet’suwet’en land defenders summed up the situation in January this year when they said, “Reconciliation is dead, the revolution is alive.”
Instead of a revolution of the heart, what we need is a socialist revolution. Indigenous and non-Indigenous workers must join together in a revolutionary struggle to overthrow the racist capitalist system, and fight side by side for socialist policies that will end centuries of genocide and repression against Indigenous people. It is in this way that we can really have justice for Joyce, as well as all the other victims of the Canadian and Québécois states and the system they defend.