Quebec nurse fired after being accused of humiliating Atikamekw woman reinstated

A nurse in Joliette, Que., who was accused of racism against an Atikamekw patient must be allowed to return to her job at the medical clinic where she’d worked, an arbitration tribunal has ruled.

Sylvie Bellemare was fired by the regional health authority, the CISSS de Lanaudière, in March 2021, after her patient, Jocelyne Ottawa, then 62, said the nurse and one of her colleagues treated her with disdain and humiliated her when she visited the clinic to have a bandage changed.

Ottawa said Bellemare asked her to sing a song in Atikamekw and asked her if she is known as Joyce in her community — just months after another Atikamekw woman named Joyce Echaquan died at a nearby hospital shortly after recording herself being taunted by health-care staff.

An Indigenous woman is sitting and looking to her left.
Jocelyne Ottawa, an Atikamekw woman in her 60s, said she felt humiliated and intimidated during her encounter with Sylvie Bellemare. She wrote about it on Facebook but later removed the post. (Radio-Canada)

The tribunal concluded that Bellemare, who had received cultural sensitivity training two weeks before treating Ottawa, had not acted in bad faith and had not been deliberately disrespectful.

Wednesday’s ruling, first reported by La Presse, said a 10-day suspension was enough to dissuade the nurse from repeating the offence and ordered that she be reinstated.

Bellemare, who has worked for the health authority for 21 years, said she regretted her actions.

She told the tribunal she had been trying to put her cultural sensitivity training into practice, after being taught that Atikamekw people often use nicknames, and said she had thought she would put Ottawa at ease by asking her to sing in her language.

In her ruling, arbitrator Dominique-Anne Roy said the nurse should “assume her fair share of responsibility” for what happened, but should not “have to carry the burden of a colonialist legacy on her shoulders and burn at the stake alone.”

“Errors can be committed along the way given the magnitude of our lack of knowledge about Indigenous communities,” Roy wrote in her ruling.

“This requires time, openness, and the employer cannot realistically think that it can be done in [a three-hour training session].”

Firing an inadequate response, tribunal rules

In her ruling, Roy said firing Bellemare was not a way for the CISSS de Lanaudière to absolve itself of the criticism it has faced for its treatment of Atikamekw patients. She also found that the health authority shouldn’t have fired Bellemare without conducting a more thorough investigation first.

The health authority declined the CBC’s request for comment but said it would make sure Bellemare’s reinstatement takes place “in the best conditions.”

The union representing Bellemare, the Syndicat interprofessionnel de la santé de Lanaudière, also declined the CBC’s interview request, saying it could not disclose any information about the ruling because it signed a confidentiality agreement with the health authority.

The CBC/Radio-Canada also reached out to Jocelyne Ottawa, the Atikamekw nation and the chief of the Assembly of First Nations for Quebec and Labrador, Ghislain Picard, but none of them had replied by the time of publication.

The case of a second nurse fired for her involvement in the same incident, Julie Duchemin, is also under review by an arbitral tribunal.

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