Hospital worker fired after Indigenous woman’s death should be reinstated: arbitrator

An arbitration tribunal has ordered the reinstatement of an orderly who was fired after an Indigenous woman filmed Quebec hospital staff insulting her as she died.

In an Aug. 16 decision, the arbitrator said that while Myriam Leblanc made inappropriate comments toward Joyce Echaquan, she was not responsible for the bulk of the poor treatment the woman received prior to her death.

“The faulty conduct occurred on only one occasion, in an emergency and acute crisis situation, and over approximately five minutes,” arbitrator Serge Brault wrote. The orderly’s actions, he added, couldn’t be compared to the “insulting, vulgar, racist and rude remarks and behaviour” of the nurse who was also fired.

Echaquan, a 37-year-old Atikamekw mother of seven, filmed herself on Facebook Live as a nurse and an orderly were heard making derogatory comments toward her in the hours prior to her death at a hospital in Joliette, Que., northeast of Montreal, on Sept. 28, 2020.

The video of her treatment drew outrage and condemnation across the country, and both Leblanc and the nurse were fired in the following days.

Leblanc and her union challenged the dismissal to the arbitration tribunal, called the Tribunal d’arbitrage du grief.

The arbitrator concluded that while Leblanc deserved to be sanctioned, the decision to fire her was likely motivated in large part by pressure from media and the public. He noted that, as an orderly, she was not the only or main person responsible, but rather a single link in “a long chain of responsibility.”

“This is why these breaches by the complainant, which justify a sanction, require that the latter be measured by the real seriousness of her breaches rather than by the consequences of their recording,” he said.

The lengthy decision includes a transcription of the comments heard in the video filmed by Echaquan, who is referred to by Brault as “the patient” rather than by name. The mother of seven had arrived at the hospital complaining of severe pain, and she later became agitated and fell several times, the document notes.

As she helped clean Echaquan’s room, Leblanc is heard saying Echaquan “made some bad choices” and asking the woman, “What would your children think of seeing you like this?”

The nurse, meanwhile, is heard directing a stream of insulting and degrading comments toward Echaquan, including that she’s stupid and “better off dead.”

Brault wrote that Leblanc’s comments to Echaquan that day were “imbued with prejudice, disrespectful, infantilizing, counter-therapeutic.”

However, he noted that Leblanc’s transgressions were far lesser than those of the nurse in the room, adding that the orderly lacked formal training and that it was possible to interpret her comments as poorly executed attempts to reassure or motivate the patient — as Leblanc had claimed.

He noted that Leblanc had several previous interactions with Echaquan during which she had shown care and consideration for her, including helping her after a fall.

The facts, taken together, “overwhelmingly reveal that she was not motivated by any malicious intent towards the patient, having largely sinned through awkwardness, lack of knowledge and ignorance of the professional ways of doing things,” Brault wrote.

He said that while Leblanc deserved a severe penalty — such as a lengthy unpaid suspension — the employer had not proven that her actions were “irredeemable.”

Brault ordered that the health board cancel Leblanc’s termination and give her the back pay she is owed, minus a six-month unpaid suspension as penalty for her actions the day Echaquan died. He also suggested she be given additional training.

The employer, the Centre integre de sante et de services sociaux de Lanaudiere, which runs the Joliette hospital, said it was analyzing the decision and declined further comment.


This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 23, 2023. 


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