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Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller held a press conference on Oct. 8 to announce that an emergency meeting between Indigenous community leaders and federal government ministers was being convened to address systemic racism during the COVID-19 pandemic. This comes in the wake of the tragic, suspicious death of Joyce Echaquan in a hospital in Joliette, Quebec on Sept. 28 — after she was belittled and neglected by racist staff, as captured in a live Facebook video — and the arrival of the second wave of COVID-19. When the press conference was held, there were 123 active cases of COVID-19 in Indigenous communities, bringing the total to 768 since the pandemic began in March.

“One thing that hit me harder than I expected was something that was said to me by Quebec’s Chief of the Assembly of First Nations Ghislain Picard,” Miller said on Thursday. “He said that (Indigenous) people normalize the situation — they just expect to be treated like garbage when they go in (to hospitals). I don’t know why that bothers me so much. Indigenous people aren’t surprised by what happened (to Joyce Echaquan); they’re disgusted but they’re not surprised, because it’s happened before. It was on video, obviously, for everyone to see, and I think people are shocked. All instances of racism are unacceptable, especially when you’re at your most vulnerable. So, too, when it comes to interaction with police and excessive use of force.”

Miller also addressed the reluctance of some Indigenous people to get the medical treatment that they need, and how it poses challenges requiring community-based solutions in the upcoming flu season — especially when a COVID-19 vaccine arrives.

“Why the hell would you go get a flu vaccine if you were going to be treated like garbage when you went in? You wouldn’t, you’d just say, ‘I’m not going to do it.’ We’re not talking about anti-vaxxers here, we’re talking about people who have been treated terribly by what should be a first-class system in this country. Their fear of the system is legitimate. When you give them control over the system, they trust people more.

“When we get a COVID vaccine, we have to deploy it in a culturally sensitive way to people that are entitled to get it as soon as everyone else gets it — perhaps sooner, given their vulnerabilities. But they don’t want to feel like guinea pigs, because their grandfathers and grandmothers, in some cases, have stories about being tested on. We’re not in the realm of conspiracy theories here — this is real, legitimate fear of a healthcare system that continues to fail them.”

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