An Ontario court dooms a First Nations girl with cancer: Who’s to blame?


I figured that yesterday’s post about the First Nations girl in Ontario with lymphoblastic leukemia whose parents stopped her chemotherapy in favor of “traditional” medicine would stir up a bit of controversy, and so it did, albeit much more at my not-so-super-secret other blog, which featured an expanded version of this post. Don’t worry, you didn’t miss anything. It was expanded in order to have a more in-depth discussion of the quack in Florida who’s treating this girl, something I’ve already discussed here and could just link to. Efficiency!

Before I launch into this, let me make one thing very clear. I come to this story from the same direction that I’ve come to each and every story about children with life-threatening cancers being denied effective chemotherapy in favor of quackery, going all the way back to the very earliest days of this blog and the story of Katie Wernecke. My view is that what matters the most is the life of the child and making sure that child is given her best shot at life by being treated with the best science-based medicine has to offer. Everything else is secondary and, to me, important only inasmuch as it helps or hinders achieving the goal of saving the life of the child. I don’t care much about whether I offend by criticizing a religion that would allow a child to die. I don’t care much if it bothers anyone that I criticized a racial, ethnic, or cultural group that facilitates the medical neglect of children. And I don’t really care that much, in the context of this case, about the historical grievances native peoples have based on past transgressions of the Canadian government. That’s not to say I don’t recognize them as important; rather, it’s that I do not accept them as valid reasons to let a child die.

I bring this up because the way discussions have been going have been disturbing, albeit predictable. Perhaps the most annoying arguments boil down to, in essence, what I like to refer to as an appeal to past repression. In other words, because the Canadian government has treated aboriginal peoples horrendously in the past, something that is inarguably true, it is argued that the Canadian government today shouldn’t make sure that this First Nations girl receives effective therapy for her life-threatening cancer today and should instead defer to the mother even though the mother’s choice will, unless reversed, lead to the death of her child. No, this is not a straw man argument. If you don’t believe me, check out the comment thread in my not-so-super-secret other blog.

Of course, the other argument being made, the one that appears to be the one that won the day for the parents of this girl, was that traditional medicine is integral to the identity of aboriginal people, that it’s so much part of their culture that to deny parents the right to choose to treat their child with traditional medicine is to deny their very culture. Indeed, this is the spin that the Six Nations Council put on Ontario Court Justice Gethin Edward’s decision denying McMaster University’s petition in a press release last Friday, that I can’t resist commenting on. It begins:

The Six Nations of the Grand River and the Mississaugas of New Credit are please with the Ontario Court of Justice’s decision today, affirming our peoples’ inherent Aboriginal right to use traditional medicines.

We have relied on and cared for our families with our medicines since time immemorial. We know that they are effective.

The court affirmed that our use of traditional medicines was integral to our cultures, historically and today. The court recognized that our right to use our medicines is not subject to the approval of western medical practitioners.

Except that the girl is not using “traditional medicines.” The family took her to a white quack down in Florida who has nothing to do with Six Nations or the Mississaugas of New Credit. As I described in yesterday’s post, the quack, Brian Clement, was giving talks in the area, one in particular entitled “All About Cancer and Conquering Disease with Living Foods.” The girl’s mother encountered him there. Impressed with his “confidence” she gave him a call. When he assured her he could cure her daughter, she stopped her daughter’s chemotherapy and headed to Florida with her daughter. She is not using traditional aboriginal medicine, unless traditional aboriginal medicine includes things like wheatgrass implants (enemas), colonics, far infrared saunas, ozone pools, “bio-energy” treatments, “colorpuncture” (a bastard offspring of acupuncture), detoxification, intravenous vitamins, and the Aqua Chi ionic footbath.

Somehow, I doubt that it does.

The press release continues:

Our communities have two girls and families directly affected by this decision. Both families are loving, diligent, and conscientious in the care they provide for their daughters and the decisions they make concerning their medical care. Both have elected to discontinue chemotherapy, and are relying, instead, on traditional medicines.

Again, neither of the two girls are relying on traditional medicines. The statement above is simply untrue, and, given that the chiefs must know that what Brian Clement offers is not traditional medicine, it’s hard not to see this statement as, under the most charitable interpretation, disingenuous as hell, and a lie if you’re not as charitable. (At the very minimum there’s a massive case of cognitive dissonance.) Indeed, the other girl, Makayla Sault, is also relying on Brian Clement. Ironically, she is was not even led to her decision to refuse chemotherapy by following the traditional beliefs of her people in that her father is a pastor at an evangelical church and Sault stopped chemotherapy after reporting having seen a vision of Jesus in her hospital room telling her that she was already healed. She is now critically ill, her cancer having predictably relapsed several months after she stopped her chemotherapy. Again, as I said yesterday, the first chance to treat a cancer is the best chance to cure it. Relapse after partial treatment is bad. Very bad. The chances of curing it go down a lot. If she’s already end stage and her immune system is compromised (as described in the story) because her bone marrow’s been blown out by blasts, she might still be salvageable with chemotherapy, but it will be difficult. I don’t know enough about her condition to judge, but it doesn’t sound good.

I would also argue this. It doesn’t matter how “loving,” “diligent,” and “conscientious” the parents are if what they are doing will kill the child. As I said yesterday, every parent making a decision like this loves her child. Every parent refusing chemotherapy thinks she’s doing what’s best for her child. Every parent who pursues quackery instead of medicine does so because she thinks it’s best for her child. The child will end up just as dead, and that’s what’s very likely to happen to Makayla Sault and this First Nations girl. These chiefs, the same ones who were so vocal about how the Ontario Court should defer to the parents to administer “traditional medicine” because it’s supposedly so integral to the girls’ cultural identity and are now gloating that that is exactly what the court did, bear a share of the blame that these two girls are doomed.

Too bad they felt this was more important:

Forcing a First Nations child to undergo unwanted, mainstream, medical treatment is an affront to the dignity and autonomy of that child, our cultures, and our nations. Had our children been forced into treatment, it would have had a disastrous effect on their emotional, psychological, and spiritual well-being. Instead of being proud of their own traditions, they would learn that the laws, governance, teachings, and medicines of the Haudenosaunee and Anishinabe cultures were wrong and even dangerous. This is simply not true.

We sincerely hope that this decision is part of an emerging era of healing and reconciliation between Canada and our nations. We hope that our children and generations to come will no longer experience the mistrust, misunderstanding, and mistreatment by the Canadian government that have been our daily reality for over 200 years.

In its application, McMasters Children’s Hospital sought to undermine our cultures and ways of life. We are pleased that the Court refused to participate in this effort and dismissed McMaster’s application.

Six Nations Elected Council and the Mississaugas of the New Credit believe that the decision made by the Court today is one of the many steps necessary to repair the broken relationship between Canada and First Nations people.

I can’t help but wonder what these people were thinking when they drafted this. Seriously. Taking these children away and treating them with effective chemotherapy would not teach them that the “medicines of the Haudenosaunee and Anishinabe cultures were wrong and even dangerous” because they’re not even using the medicines of the Haudenosaunee and Anishinabe cultures! Of course, they’d probably be just as dead if they were to use Haudenosaunee and Anishinabe medicine, given that it’s highly unlikely that these medicines have anything that is effective against lymphoblastic leukemia, but they’re not using them. Indeed, they’ve rejected Haudenosaunee and Anishinabe medicines in favor of quackery from a white man who isn’t even a real doctor or Haudenosaunee and Anishinabe traditional healer! The absurdity astounds!

It’s even worse, considering that if the First Nations girl were forced to “undergo unwanted, mainstream, medical treatment,” she’d have a roughly 90% chance of growing up to be a First Nations woman and live a long and productive life. That doesn’t seem to matter, though. To them, McMasters Children’s Hospital, in trying to save the life of one of their children, was seeking to “undermine” the “cultures and ways of life” of aboriginal people, and the key importance of this case was that it was a victory over the Canadian government that gave them the right to use their traditional medicine on their children. It apparently bothers them not at all that at least two girls will likely die as a result of this new-found right and that these two girls aren’t even exercising their cultural prerogative of using their traditional medicine.

Look, I understand, at least as much as a middle-aged citizen of an oppressor nations can, that aboriginal peoples have been treated horribly by the Canadian government, just as those in the US have been by the US government. I know about, for instance, the Canadian residential schools, in which aboriginal children were forced to attend boarding schools away from their families and communities in order to assimilate them into the dominant Canadian culture. There, aboriginal children often suffered physical and sexual abuse. It’s not surprising that there is a great deal of distrust. It is also not surprising that the Ontario government bent over backwards not to appear to be “undermining” the culture of the native peoples, even to the point of letting a parent medically neglect her child. It was a cowardly decision, but understandable in context.

However, it is a grave disservice to aboriginal children for Six Nations leader to allow that mistrust to lead to their using two innocent children as a weapon in their fight to obtain more autonomy. It is a grave disservice to their children to allow them to be victims of a quack. It is a grave disservice to aboriginal children to allow that mistrust to lead to this:

In the present case the community has rallied around the families of the two girls and fund raisers have provided money to fly the families to Florida for what was supposed to be “traditional healing” but was in fact just another fly by night scheme that will result in the death of two young girls who had put their trust in the adults of the community including their parents – ignoring the concerns of the medical establishment in Ontario.

As I pointed out thus far, the bill is’ already up to $18,000 and counting. As Deyoyonwatheh, who works for McMaster but wasn’t involved in either girl’s care, puts it:

Since the parents opted to go their own way and find “alternative methods”, the death of their children will likely weigh heavily on their shoulders for the rest of their lives. How can one live with the knowledge that their poor decisions played the key role in the demise of their own children. The community saw fit to rally around these parents and so must also accept the responsibility for the decisions. It is all so painful, so sad. Vulnerable children who must of necessity rely on the best judgment of their parents and other adults, and being profoundly let down by them – even if well intentioned.

In addition to the parents and the Six Nations and New Credit communities as seen here and here, also “blame” can be directed at the Courts as seen here, and particularly here with the Courts decision to dismiss McMaster’s case and permit the parents to continue with whatever form of treatment they deem appropriate. Furthermore the role of the Brant County Children’s Aid Society, as seen here and here needs to be carefully considered.

Yes, there is plenty of blame for the impending deaths of these girls to go around, although, the more I read about this story, the more I blame, in addition to the quack Brian Clement, of course, the aboriginal authorities who used these girls as tools of convenience to assert their autonomy from Canada.

As I said, the best interests of the child are all I ever care about in these cases. Race, religion, culture, a past history of oppression, all of these I reject as reasons for letting these girls die. There is a way out, however. The leaders of the First Nations community in which these girls live can act, and act now, to see that these girls receive effective therapy. They can put the best interests of their community’s children over political considerations and historical grievances. Will they do that? I’m not optimistic.