Makayla Sault Died Because Canada’s Institutions Failed Her

I’ve been remiss in submitting articles for Canadian Atheist recently; I’ve been busy with a new job and all the new appointments that result when you discover a new health issue. This all means I missed the opportunity to comment on the death of Makayla Sault, the First Nation’s girl with leukemia whose parents stopped her chemotherapy in favour of alternative treatments. I wrote about Makayla’s and “J.J.’s” cases here and here. In these pieces, I spoke about how Canadian institutions failed these children and in essence infantilized First Nations people in thinking they would be unable to handle challenges to their beliefs. I also pointed out that these treatments the parents refer to as “traditional medicine” were anything but, as both girls went to a charlatan in Florida, who runs the Hippocrates Health Institute (HHI), for treatments which included vitamin drinks, raw food diets and a positive attitude. The HHI is currently being sued by its staff.

Fortunately, Jerry Coyne wrote a great piece in the New Republic: Canada Lets Makayla Sault Die of Leukemia Over Religious Sensitivity.

I found this paragraph particularly poignant:

Perhaps the most odious part of this whole tragedy is that the Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ) has endorsed Makayla’s alternative treatment, making themselves complicit in any future deaths of this kind. On the same day Makayla died, an editorial appeared in that journal arguing that doctors must respect the desire of parents to substitute “native” medicine for scientific medicine. (Never mind that cold-laser treatment and vitamin therapy are hardly traditional medicines of Canada’s First Nations.)

People with illness look to an institution like the CMAJ to guide them in their treatment decisions. Such an endorsement of quack treatments exposes Canadians to unacceptable and avoidable risk. How many more children have to die before Canadian institutions (medical associations, hospitals, courts, government) wake up and realize they are participating in these children’s untimely demise? Does cultural sensitivity and religious tolerance trump saving a child’s life?

17 thoughts on “Makayla Sault Died Because Canada’s Institutions Failed Her

  1. There is one other inconsistency that intrigues me, at least it’s an inconsistency to me.

    While the appeal to “tradition” has some value, perhaps in providing some psychological support to a patient who finds comfort with it, and as a part of overall treatment, I am astonished that the concept of “tradition” in this case included Christianity. I guess 300-400 years of cultural imperialism counts for tradition in some books, but shouldn’t the family have been appealing to their animistic and shamanistic traditions? If we’re really going to let people make real choices about how they die (something I am not entirely uncomfortable with), shouldn’t it have been in this case, based of a real understanding of what tradition means?

    Just throwing this out there, maybe I don’t understand tradition. All I know is, every time I pass the Shrine to Ste. Marie among the Hurons on my way north, I can’t help thinking that the shrine should be to the Hurons who resisted the Christian incursion and not the other way around.

  2. The traditional way to hunt was with spears and bows on
    foot, now they use rifles and snowmobiles. They can
    and do use science when it suits them.

    One thought, if you are a parent who hates a child and the child got sick traditional medicine would be a legal way to murder the child.

  3. I submitted this comment to the CBC but it got filtered.
    ————–

    One could rail against the Florido scam. One could rail against the parents. One could rail against “faith-healing”. In the end, I should think we should all have the right to bodily sovereignty. Could an 11 year old minor make their own life or death decision? I’m not so sure. Should killing your own child by neglect be legal? I hardly think so. Should the power of the state move in when a parent is doing so? In the case of a powerless child perhaps.
    ————–

    Perhaps this line is why I got filtered. Having to do with a child making a decision.
    ————–
    Would an infant minor agree to cosmetic surgery on their genitals. Not likely. They’re utterly defenseless.
    —————

    I went on with…
    ————–
    Many people take on that fight with cancer and win. Imagine those odds of 75% given in this story. Wow. Against cancer. Put that up against any other non-scientific, unproven, hopey-feely, faithy nonsense and your decision should be simple. Yeah it’ll be a fight. But hey…it’s your life…whatever you want to do with it.
    ———–

    Perhaps another reason I got filtered as I finished with this sentiment that links to bodily sovereignty.
    ———–
    To the ReformaCons/religious nuts…keep your wicked claws off the bodily rights of women and their own personal decisions if you like bodily rights so much.
    ———–

    I guess we’ll see if I get filtered here. Of course, I could just be an out-to-lunch, wacko, nutbar…:)

  4. > … I am astonished that the concept of “tradition” in this case included Christianity.

    Every time the stories of one of these two girls comes up again, I find that I have to repeat the same point. Here I go again.

    *NOBODY* is claiming that the Christian laying-on-of-hands, faith-healing crap that the Saults believe in is traditional aboriginal medicine.

    *NOBODY* is claiming that the “alternative medicine” nonsense that the Hippocrates Health Institute is peddling is traditional aboriginal medicine.

    These things are *ENTIRELY* irrelevant to the whole aboriginal rights aspect that is central to these cases. From the legal standpoint, they’re merely things those parents are doing *IN ADDITION TO* traditional aboriginal healing… they’re not the things the parents are actually calling traditional aboriginal healing. Bringing them up in the same context is simply clueless, if not dishonest.

    This is simplifying things to the point of absurdity, but perhaps it will clear up the confusion:

    Every non-aboriginal Canadian child with ALL will get chemo… *PLUS* any other stuff the parents want to give them, like prayer or “alt med”. No non-aboriginal parent would be allowed to replace chemo with herbs or prayer, but they can certainly do those things *IN ADDITION TO* the chemo.

    What the court ruled in the J.J. case is that aboriginal parents can replace chemo with traditional medicinal practices. Which means that aboriginal parents – and *only* aboriginal parents – can give their child chemo *AND/OR* traditional aboriginal medicine… *PLUS* any other stuff they want to give them (like prayer or “alt med”). If aboriginal parents want to give their kids Christian faith healing or Hippocrates “alt med” crap, they can do those things *IN ADDITION TO* traditional aboriginal medicine (and/or chemo).

    Clear now?

    Non-aboriginal kids -> get chemo… PLUS anything else the parents want. (PLUS… not “or” – the chemo is mandatory.)

    Aboriginal kids -> get chemo AND/OR traditional aboriginal medicine… PLUS anything else the parents want.

    Makayla Sault did not replace chemo with Christian prayer, and no one is calling Christian faith-healing “aboriginal medicine”. She got traditional aboriginal medicine… PLUS Christian faith-healing and Hippocrates crap.

    The same is true for J.J. – that was a KEY point in her case: that her mother really was giving her traditional aboriginal medicine (along with the Hippocrates crap, but that was irrelevant). If J.J.’s mother *hadn’t* been giving her traditional aboriginal medicine… if she’d *only* been using Hippocrates “alt med” or Chritsian prayer… then the court would have ordered her to get chemo (or traditional aboriginal medicine). But she was *was* giving her traditional aboriginal treatments *IN ADDITION TO* the Hippocrates “alt med” crap (and, possibly prayer).

    Jerry Coyne’s article is *NOT* great. It is, in fact, quite clueless and misleading. He has not a damn clue what he’s talking about (or if he does, he’s being deliberately misleading, almost to the point of being an outright liar) – he seems to blithely assume that the situation in Canada with regards to faith-healing is similar to the situation in the US, which is completely false. The fact that he conflates faith-healing with the case at all is clueless, or dishonest.

    What killed Makayla Sault was NOT the “unwarranted respect for faith” that doesn’t really exist but Jerry Coyne imagines. Faith literally had nothing to do with it. In fact, despite Coyne’s false claims in his article, Canada does NOT have any respect for faith *WHATSOEVER* when it comes to the life of a child… or anyone’s life for that matter. It is well-enshrined in Canadian law that the right to life trumps someone else’s right to practice their faith. If J.J.’s mother wanted to justify taking her daughter off chemo for religious reasons, she would have flat out lost the case… just like every… single… other… parent that’s ever tried that gamble in Canada. Canada is *NOT* friendly to faith-healers. The US has exemptions for faith-healing in its laws; Canada does not.

    Coyne comes *close* to the right answer, skirting around it, but he’s so fixated on faith the whole thing ends up being a shamefully ignorant disaster. It wasn’t accommodation for aboriginal religion that was the factor here, but rather a horribly bad interpretation of the constitutional protections for aboriginal rights and freedoms.

    The reason J.J.’s mother won the case is because she framed aboriginal medicine as a right that aboriginal people had before Confederation… and the Constitution explicitly protects the rights aboriginal people had before Confederation. Checkmate.

    Basically, Judge Edward took the constitutional wording designed to protect aboriginal’s territorial and resource rights (like hunting and fishing rights), and applied it to their *human* rights… completely tossing aside all the protections granted by the Charter. Which was incredibly stupid, sure… but did you see anything about religion or faith-healing in there? No? That’s because it had nothing at all to do with what happened.

    These cases involve some very delicate and sensitive issues – aboriginal rights are a very sore topic in Canada. Confounding those issues with strawman crap – like Coyne’s article does – does not help; it only makes solving the real problems that much harder. Makayla Sault did not die because of a failure of secularism, or because of the imaginary bullshit Coyne believes about Canada’s “respect for faith”, she died because of a failure to properly untangle a web of issues from our imperialistic history. It’s a tragedy, but it’s not the tragedy Coyne thinks it is.

    • The aboriginal medicine was all mixed up with the Jesus stuff and the HHI with the owner of HHI travelling to Six Nations and other reservations to entice customers. I wrote about an aboriginal perspective on this in this article last year when I quoted Spear:

      From my point of view it would be gratifying to see the cause of indigenous rights asserted on something actually indigenous, rather than upon the creative practices of a Florida massage therapist or the proposal that Jesus cures. In some hospitals, an intergrationst (sic) approach has been taken, in which elders and cultural potocols (sic) have been brought into the institution. Belief in a culture doesn’t have to manifest itself in absolutist choices between supposed cultural purity and betrayal. Unless, I suppose, one is an absolutist.
      Spear continues:

      This campaign — a mixture of Christianity, alternative medicines, New Age dabbling, and traditional herbs — strikes me as an abuse of cultural integrity, rather than its defence. Unfortunately I’ve arrived too late: Justice Gethin Edward has already given the business a seal of approval.

      But even if we were to accept that you’re right and this was just more woo Makayla’s parents were practicing, does that really matter? Why should religious hokum of any faith be accepted or even promoted by the CMAJ? Makayla’s parents were also fundamentalist Christians and Makayla told her parents Jesus appeared to her and said she was healed. Canada reacts to Christian woo in forcing JW children to go through blood transfusions but they are willing to let an aboriginal girl die for the same type of religious nonsense?

      • > But even if we were to accept that you’re right and this was just more woo Makayla’s parents were practicing, does that really matter?

        The facts matter. We’re supposed to be evidence-based thinkers, so shrugging off evidence that contradicts our theses is a cardinal sin.

        The evidence is absolute and unquestionable in this case – it’s spelled out clearly in the J.J. court ruling: this was *NOT* a case of religious accommodation. Coyne is just plain wrong.

        Frankly, it doesn’t matter what reasons Makayla or her parents thought she was avoiding chemo for – who the fuck cares if an 11 year-old kid thought she was getting out of chemo because Jesus said so? What matters is why it was allowed to happen, and – spoiler alert – it wasn’t because Jesus said so. It was allowed because of a misguided attempt at recognizing traditional aboriginal rights, unfortunately in a way that had them override Makayla’s human rights… *NOT* for reasons of religious accommodation.

        > Why should religious hokum of any faith be accepted or even promoted by the CMAJ?

        It’s not. Coyne is misrepresenting what the CMAJ editorial is saying. He cherry-picked their words and twisted them into the most unfair and negative light he possibly could. I’m trying not to call him a liar, but looking at the glaring difference between what’s actually in the editorial and the way he described it, that’s not easy.

        What Dr. Richardson and Dr. Stanbrook are saying in the editorial is that attempts to force aboriginal people into hospitals at figurative gunpoint – under court order – are misguided. Which seems pretty obvious, I’d think. In their words: “Trust is essential for medical treatment to be effective, particularly when it involves giving one’s child toxic medications with severe adverse effects. Had the court forced J.J. to undergo such treatment, the mistrust, anger and resistance that might have ensued within her community could have greatly compromised any future ability to provide optimal care not only to her, but to all Aboriginal people.” Note that contrary to Coyne’s misrepresentation they’re *NOT* saying “don’t give the toxic medications with severe adverse effects”… they’re saying that you *SHOULD* give those medications (they go on, in the next paragraph, to talk about how to make them “acceptable”), but you need *TRUST* to do it.

        Their argument is that we have to look at what *aboriginals* expect medicine to look and feel like, and incorporate that into their treatment plan. In other words, if they want to do some kind of ceremonial thing, don’t scoff at them and tell them go do that elsewhere and get *real* medicine here… find a way to incorporate their way of doing medicine into the modern medical program. It’s *their* health, after all, and *their* treatment. We take patient expectations and “bed-side manner” into account when dealing with non-aboriginals – we should do the same for aboriginals.

        Coyne selectively quotes Richardson and Stanbrook in a way that distorts what they’re saying. Just before the bit he quotes about “Medical science is not specific to a single culture”, he cuts out two vital sentences: “Media coverage has fueled a narrative of polarized paradigms
        that is unhelpful and misleading, implying false choices. Medical science poses no inherent conflict with Aboriginal ways of thinking.” That entirely changes the context of what Coyne quotes. They’re not saying that what every culture calls medicine is equivalent. They literally and clearly say that *MEDICAL SCIENCE* is compatible with aboriginal culture… that you don’t have to choose between medical science and aboriginal culture (they call that a “false choice”)… that you can have both: aboriginal culture *AND* medical science. You can have “plant-based medicines, culture and ceremony” and so on *AND* modern medical science *TOGETHER*… at the same time… it’s not either-or.

        For example, our cultural expectation of medicine is someone in a white coat with a clipboard coming to our bedside in a mostly-white room and being friendly but professionally distant. Aboriginal expectation is something else – maybe it’s someone in some specific tribal dress and holding a ritual object in a room decorated in a certain way and being solemn and mystical like. You can present the *SAME* modern medical treatments – like chemotherapy – either way. *OUR* way – the doctor in the white coat – is not more “right” than *THEIR* way – the doctor in tribal dress with the ritual object. Whichever one the patient is more comfortable with, they should get. Either way they’re getting the same medical treatment – the chemo – it’s just the presentation that changes.

        As Richardson and Stanbrook say – despite Coyne’s distortions – doing that is just giving the patient what they feel most comfortable with: doing that “is not political correctness, it’s patient-centric care.”

        Coyne’s misrepresentation of Richardson and Stanbrook’s editorial is creationist-level dishonest.

        > Canada reacts to Christian woo in forcing JW children to go through blood transfusions but they are willing to let an aboriginal girl die for the same type of religious nonsense?

        Again, that’s not what happened. Canada did *NOT* let Makayla Sault die for “religious nonsense”. That’s just not true.

        Canada *DID* fail Makayla Sault, but not in *THAT* way. We failed her for *other* reasons. We let Makayla Sault die because we have ignored the tangled legal mess that exists between the government and the First Nations – because we have been avoiding facing the difficult questions about how to balance *protecting* aboriginal Canadians and allowing them their traditional, pre-colonial freedoms. In Makayla’s case, we balanced wrong, in my opinion – we gave too much weight to the latter and not enough to the former. It’s a tragedy, but it’s a tragedy we’re not going to make any progress toward understanding or preventing from happening again until we stop this bullshit rhetoric about “religious accommodation”.

        • Children are a special case. You analogy of guru point is exaggerated and inconsistent. We force JW children to undergo blood transfusions but let aboriginal girls die. This was politicized when it shouldn’t have been.

          Your assertions that words were twisted are just that: assertions. Go peruse comments made by the quoted member of the CMAJ to Jerry’s article and you will see that there has been no twisting of words.

        • Also this idea of how aboriginal medicine looks vs western medicine is a red herring. I am familiar with aboriginals on this Res. They live just kike the rest of us. This issue was politicized just as Spear pointed out. It is incredibly insulting to most natives to treat them in such ways; as if they just don’t understand all that crazy white man medicine.

          The CMAJ should be ashamed. You may read into their comments as saying traditional medicine is ok along with modern medicine but that isn’t what their statement says. We should all stop wondering what would happen if we spoke to natives as if they are grown ups and start caring about the patient. We care about white JWs after all and we speak to their parents as adults. As I said above, children are a special case. You can force them to receive medicine their parents don’t want them to have.

    • What is the difference between traditional medicine
      and faith healing other than the labels?

      Jerry Coyne may have missed some of the details but his basic point that a child probably died for no valid reason still stands.

      Really it’s a big pile of bullshit as natives pick and choose. Do they wear glasses? Do they use rifles
      Do they use metal boats? Do they use hospitals?
      Airplanes?

      The list goes on and on, did they stand fast on this because the death of one child did not inconvenience them? One young girl who cares?

  5. I don’t know which is greater, my anger or my sadness.

  6. …she died because of a failure to properly untangle a web of issues from our imperialistic history.

    And, it would appear, because her parents reckoned that traditional medicine plus prayers and HHI vitamin drinks was a better bet than traditional medicine plus chemotherapy. Even if they sincerely wanted to pursue traditional medicine as their daughter’s main course of treatment, they clearly picked the wrong Plan B. And if they introduced traditional medicine into the mix mainly as a legalistic ploy to get her out of chemotherapy and into the hands of the faith-healers and HHI quacks, they were being disingenuous as well as foolish. Either way, their faith in Christianity and new-fangled (as opposed to traditional) alternative medicine probably contributed to their daughter’s death, even if it didn’t influence the court.

  7. Indi, I appreciate your point of view and your frustration, as I think you have a valid point in that the issue at the heart of this is our relationship with aboriginal peoples. There is perhaps a greater truth to be dealt with here; our imperialism as opposed to our presentiments about religion and science. And you are bang on that the judge’s conflating aboriginal territorial rights with cultural practices (which are not guaranteed under the charter) as “human” rights, is the legal pivot on which this swings. You might also have pointed as a critical free-thinker, that there was no guarantee Makayla would have lived if she had stuck with the prescribed medical course of action. So it seems that we are indeed raising straw man arguments with our religious bogeyman.

    Still I can’t but help but feel that religious woo is at the bottom of all this:
    1) I wonder if the parents would have been as legalistic as you are had Makayla actually survived w/out chemo? Would they be blessing the judge for his acknowledgement of their “human” rights or praising their faith in Jesus?
    2) When the next religious nut bar refuses aid to a child or keeps a dead person in their house awaiting resurrection or submits a child to genital mutilation, will they too be able to claim fiat based on their charter guaranteed religious freedoms? How do you propose to separate one from the other? Aren’t all minority cultural rights essentially religious at heart?

  8. For those of you who think the media has done a disservice to these First Nations girls by misrepresenting their story and focusing on HHI and it’s quack treatments when they were just exercising their rights as First Nations people and receiving actual First Nations medicine along with HHI treatments, a CBC investigation shows otherwise. In JJ’s case today:

    ….the family was relying on indigenous medicine from the start, including when they were in chemo at McMaster, and continued to do so while they were at Hippocrates. She showed me the medicine.

    The reporter comments:

    There were two teas — one given to her by a healer in their community and another sent by someone she met on Facebook who says he is a medicine man from Saskatchewan.

    The tea was likely the only indigenous medicine at Hippocrates.

    The majority of the treatments are non aboriginal stuff from HHI.

    However, this shouldn’t matter. Native rights should be limited when it means killing a child. In JJ’s case, she has a 90% chance at survival. This treatment she is receiving now will kill her.

    As a First Nations person myself, I’m confident I can say that none of my ancestors abided by a strict raw vegan diet, or took high doses of vitamins intravenously or underwent cold laser technology. Regardless, her mother said Hippocrates was in line with her belief in natural medicine.

  9. > Children are a special case. You analogy of guru point is exaggerated and inconsistent.

    I’m aware children are a special case, which is why they are considered separately. The analogy does not work for them simply because it is not meant for them; they are – as you point out – a special case.

    > It is incredibly insulting to most natives to treat them in such ways; as if they just don’t understand all that crazy white man medicine.

    It’s not about “not understanding crazy white man medicine”, it’s about their perspective of modern health care in general. From their perspective, the medical system is simply not working for them. They get crap-ass health care in the areas they live, and when they go to hospitals in major cities they are simply left out in hallways to die. Those things actually happen. In Canada. Frequently. Is it any wonder why they consider medical science hostile and alien?

    If there were a hospital in a non-aboriginal area that had a startlingly bad success rate and a documented record of simply tossing people aside and leaving them to suffer in lobbies and hallways rather than treating them, would we stand for it? Would we simply ignore how bad the hospital is and use the courts to force people to use it regardless? No, we’d demand that it be changed to better meet our expectations of what a good hospital is. Why wouldn’t aboriginals do the same? And why would you assume that their expectations would be identical to ours?

    Their complaints about the medical system are *VERY* much justified – it’s treated them like human garbage for generations, and continues to do so in many places. Answering their concerns with lawsuits forcing them just suck it up and accept things is wrong-headed.

    > You may read into their comments as saying traditional medicine is ok along with modern medicine but that isn’t what their statement says.

    It is *LITERALLY* what their statement says. *LITERALLY*. In the paragraph Coyne partially quoted, the introductory sentences that he cut out say so… *LITERALLY*. They explicitly say “Medical science poses no inherent conflict with Aboriginal ways of thinking.” That is *literally* saying that traditional medicine is okay along with modern medicine.

    I’m *literally* quoting their exact words, not cutting out the bits that don’t agree with my thesis.

    > We should all stop wondering what would happen if we spoke to natives as if they are grown ups and start caring about the patient.

    This has nothing to do with infantilizing aboriginals. Their distrust of the medical system is not childish – they have decades and decades of evidence that they’re not getting good health care with the current system.

    Have you seen the statistics? Canada has one of the best health care systems in the world, so our average life expectancy is up in the top ten in the world… but the life expectancy rates for aboriginals are third-world country levels – a white Canadian can expect to live in to their 80s; an aboriginal, their 60s. They are not “just like the rest of us” – the rest of us actually get good care when we use the health system, they don’t. In virtually every single metric of health, aboriginals are *significantly* worse off than the Canadian average – in some cases by alarming factors. Just look at the papers published by the Health Council of Canada – they’re all still online.

    You are not an infant if you look at that data and realize that the medical system is not working for you. And if a system isn’t working for you and you don’t have the power to fix it, you are not an infant if you seek alternatives.

    Aboriginals aren’t running to traditional medicine, “alt med” quacks, and Jesus because they’re idiots. Believing *that* is infantilizing them. They are running to these things because they are desperate to get better health care. Ignoring their plight is not the right solution, fixing the damn health care system to make it work for them is. And part of the process of doing that is finding ways to make them trust the system again. *THAT* is caring for the patient; ignoring their concerns and pretending they’re “just like the rest of us” is not.

    > As I said above, children are a special case. You can force them to receive medicine their parents don’t want them to have.

    And as I said above, I’m aware that children are a special case.

    You are conflating two entirely different things. The article that Coyne misrepresented has next to nothing to do with children – it’s about aboriginal health care in general. It barely mentions the kids at all – when it talks about the fallout from forcing J.J. to get medical treatment, it doesn’t talk about J.J., it talks about her community. In general it talks about “aboriginal patients”… not aboriginal children.

    If you want to talk about health care for children, fine… let’s put that article aside and talk about health care for children. Don’t conflate them, because they’re two different things.

    I don’t disagree that Edward’s ruling is stupid – I just dispute the claims that it was a faith-based accommodation, because it’s not. It’s a misapplication of rules intended to protect aboriginal rights and culture.

    Canada already has perfectly good protections for children. You already mentioned JW parents, and already pointed out that they wouldn’t get away with claiming a religious exemption. That’s true – an aboriginal parent wouldn’t get away with it either. No one would. In fact, you probably aren’t aware of this, but one of the most notorious faith-healing sects, Christian Scientists, actually give two different sets of advice to parents: in Canada, they tell parents *DON’T* skip out on modern medical science… in the US, they tell parents go ahead and do it. Because even they know you can’t get away with that crap in Canada.

    As I’ve repeated, the cases of Makayla Sault and J.J. are *NOT* cases of people getting religious exemptions from medicine to kill their kids. The “exemption” these parents got was different. Yes, it had the same effect, but the fact remains: just because it had the same effect does *NOT* mean it’s the same thing.

    And yes, I’m aware that the Saults in particular were Christian faith-healing nuts – in fact, they first came to attention when they brought Makayla to a US televangelist named Shuttleworth early last year, who implied she was cured – and yes, I’m aware that the reason *MAKAYLA* wanted out of chemo is because she thought Jesus told her it was cool. But while Christianity may be the reason the Saults *BELIEVED* they didn’t need need real medicine… it is not the reason they *USED* to get out of it. If they’d tried that, it wouldn’t have worked, and they almost certainly knew it. So, instead, they tried two different claims: they claimed chemo was hurting her, and that they had a right to give her traditional aboriginal medicine. (In J.J.’s case, religion seems to have never come up at all. Right from the start, they claimed they wanted traditional health care.)

    So freaking out about how Canada allows religious health care exemptions like Coyne does is not only wrong, it’s distracting from the *real* problem… the *real* reason those two girls are being allowed to die.

    We failed these girls, and if we don’t want to fail any more kids (or adults, for that matter), we need to pull our heads out of our asses find the *real* reason they died… not the reason we feel comfortable with blaming. Because I guarantee you that right now, other quacks like those from the Hippocrates Health Institute are touring Canada’s aboriginal communities *TEACHING* them that if they want to avoid that “dangerous, impersonal modern medicine that doesn’t work” for them, they should claim they want traditional aboriginal medicine… and then come to their clinics to get their fruit juice treatments or acupuncture or whatever other crap. They are pretending to be “on their side”, talking up narratives that instill fear, uncertainty, and doubt about real medicine, and coaching them on how to slip through the cracks in our system, so they can exploit them. I promise you, with absolute certainty, that is happening *right now* in Canada, and if we want to fight the battle against them effectively, and win, we need to go into the fight with eyes wide open and clear. Coyne’s clueless ranting is a distraction.

    > Indi, I appreciate your point of view and your frustration, as I think you have a valid point in that the issue at the heart of this is our relationship with aboriginal peoples.

    Well, that’s a little broader than I was aiming. I think more precisely I’d say the issue at heart is the health care system’s relationship with aboriginal peoples. I think that’s what Richardson and Stanbrook were getting at, too.

    Sure, perhaps the underlying issue of *that* is ultimately our relationship with aboriginal peoples, but I think that’s getting to a level where you’re thinking too abstractly to deal with the problem at hand.

    > Still I can’t but help but feel that religious woo is at the bottom of all this:

    I think it’s important to understand the issue from two different perspectives:
    1.) Why did the Saults (or J.J.’s family) say no to chemo?
    2.) Why did the courts (and child services, etc.) *let* them?

    I think religion is *ABSOLUTELY* at the bottom of the first question. There is no doubt in my mind that religious stupidity is what made them put more faith in a “vision” than in chemo. Even in J.J.’s case, where religion itself doesn’t seem to be directly culpable, religious *thinking* – faith in things like “balancing your energy” and shit like that – is definitely a major culprit.

    So I absolutely agree that religion is not entirely blameless here. But the thing is, I don’t believe that question 1 is all that important in Canada. Because even if religion is the culprit behind question 1 (which I believe it is), Canada has very strong protections to deal with that. If the Saults or J.J.’s family *weren’t* aboriginal – if they were white Christian Scientists, for example – then if religion were the answer to question 1 the law would still be protecting the kids.

    So the failure here really hinges on question 2: not why did the Saults refuse chemo (which, sure, is almost certainly religion)… but why did we let them get away with it?

    And the answer to that question is where I think Coyne and so many atheists have flown off the rails. Because the answer to question 2 does *NOT* involve religion. The answer to question 2 is: because of a warped interpretation of laws intended to protect aboriginal traditions and practices… a law *intended* for things like hunting and fishing rights, and settlement rights, and so on.

    I would say Judge Edward’s ruling is “right” insofar that he correctly identifies traditional aboriginal medicine as a pre-colonial traditional practice that should be protected under s35 of the constitution. If this were *really* just a case of someone trying to deny J.J.’s mother her traditional rights – which is the way Edward framed it – the ruling would be absolutely correct.

    Where I think the ruling fails is that Judge Edwards framed the case entirely wrong: it wasn’t just a case of someone trying to deny J.J.’s mother’s rights… it was a case of balancing J.J.’s rights – specifically, her right to life – against her mother’s s35 rights. In all other cases in Canadian law, the right to life is absolute – trumping all other rights. (This is why faith-healing cases work in Canada – the child’s right to life is absolute over the parents’ right to practice their religion.) It *should* have been the case here… but Judge Edward simply didn’t consider J.J.’s rights at all; he only considered her mother’s rights. In my opinion, that means he fucked up royally. I believe if the case were appealed or a similar case brought, the ruling would go the other way.

    > 2) When the next religious nut bar refuses aid to a child or keeps a dead person in their house awaiting resurrection or submits a child to genital mutilation, will they too be able to claim fiat based on their charter guaranteed religious freedoms?

    No.

    This is what I keep repeating. *NOBODY* claimed fiat based on religious exemptions in these cases. That’s simply not what happened. These were *NOT* cases of people claiming freedom of religion.

    If I were to try to put this situation into the simplest terms possible: Just because someone wants something for religious reasons… and they get it… that doesn’t necessarily mean they got it *BECAUSE* of those religious reasons. It boggles my mind that so many otherwise intelligent atheists seem unable to grasp this simple concept. Yes, the Saults *WANTED* an exemption for religious reasons… but they didn’t *GET* an exemption for religious reasons, they got it for *OTHER* reasons. The result may be the same in the end, but that’s totally irrelevant: the result of a stab wound and cancer may be the same in the end, death, but if we want to treat the problem we have to understand that they’re two very different things.

    No one has *EVER* successfully claimed a religious exemption from providing modern medicine to a child in Canada (at least since 1982). *EVER*. And no one ever will – at least in the foreseeable future. There is a large body of case law in Canada that affirms this: in plain English, many have tried, none have succeeded. Won’t happen. You can take a swing at it if you like; you’ll almost certainly just be another losing statistic.

    > How do you propose to separate one from the other?

    That’s not hard. When someone wants to deny a child medicine, they get called before the legal system (usually by children’s aid services of some kind, sometimes – as in the J.J. case – by doctors). The onus is on them to provide a sound argument for why they don’t need to give their child medicine. If they try to claim religion, they lose automatically.

    So what they’re probably going to try to do, if they’re dishonest and canny, is fake a secular reason for not giving the child medicine – hiding their real religion reasons. That is a very common religious tactic, used in everything from faith-healing cases to cases about teaching creationism in the classroom. It’s a very common tactic, but it almost always fails. It’s not easy to come up with a rational-sounding secular reason to explain a religious desire.

    > Aren’t all minority cultural rights essentially religious at heart?

    No, there are many, many parts of culture that aren’t religious. Honestly, off the top of my head I can’t think of many cases in Canada where a minority’s (non-religious) cultural traditions came before a court, because Canada is relatively tolerant of diversity – there just aren’t many laws in Canada targeting specific minority practices that aren’t actually, arguably dangerous in some way. But I’ve heard plenty of cases in other countries, ranging from things like men wearing kilts to women wearing pants, to drug charges for people chewing on traditional “chewing gums”, to meat safety laws that don’t take into account traditional cooking practices. If I had to name a Canadian case, the big name one that pops into my head is the seal hunt.

    If you squint hard enough and dig deeply enough into the reasons for a cultural tradition, you can always make it *sound* religious, even if it isn’t really – for example, explain why Canadians don’t eat dogs, or explain why men wear suits and ties to offices and not dashikis and kufis. But there’s no real point in doing that. A lot of the time, the things a culture does or believes it does or believes simply because it’s tradition. There may be some long-forgotten religious reason for it, or there may not, but the reality is pretty much no one actually knows or cares about the original reasons: it’s just a thing the culture does, and they just want to keep doing it because it feels comfortable – or they feel like it’s a part of their identity, and they don’t want their identity watered down.

    > For those of you who think the media has done a disservice to these First Nations girls by misrepresenting their story and focusing on HHI and it’s quack treatments when they were just exercising their rights as First Nations people and receiving actual First Nations medicine along with HHI treatments, a CBC investigation shows otherwise.

    No, it doesn’t. Quite the opposite, it shows exactly what you claim it doesn’t.

    *NOBODY* is saying the HHI is “traditional medicine”. You’re not breaking any shocking news when you point that out. Even in the court ruling, the judge says he knows that it isn’t traditional medicine. I’ve seen this “shocking” exposé repeated on several atheist blogs, but it’s a complete straw man. Other than atheists, it seems, nobody at all is fooled into believing that anyone thinks the HHI does traditional aboriginal medicine.

    That article explicitly says that the mother wants people to stop talking about aboriginal medicine… and start talking about HHI. Even *SHE* understands that no one thinks HHI is aboriginal medicine! She *KNOWS* HHI is not traditional aboriginal medicine… she says she’s using it *in addition to* aboriginal medicine.

    In the court ruling, the judge asked if J.J. was getting traditional aboriginal medicine. She was. The article you linked to even says she was (and still is). In fact, it points out that she was using traditional medicine *BEFORE* she went to HHI… while she was still getting chemo at McMaster.

    And that was all the judge cared about: either she was getting chemo, or she was getting traditional aboriginal medicine… and she was getting traditional aboriginal medicine. That was enough. Anything else she got in addition to that – including the stuff at HHI – was irrelevant. She was (and still is) getting traditional aboriginal medicine. She is *ALSO* getting HHI’s crap, but that’s not relevant.

    It’s also utterly irrelevant that the mother thinks HHI is the bee’s knees – just as it is irrelevant that the Saults thought Jesus cured her daughter. Who cares what the loonies think is magically curing their kids? What matters is why are we letting them out of chemo? And the answer to that question is not because anyone thinks the HHI does aboriginal medicine or even that their quack treatments work. (In fact, the judge even comments that it won’t!) We know HHI is quackery, we know it won’t work, we know it’s not aboriginal medicine, and we know J.J.’s mother really believes in it. None of those things are news, and none of them really matter.

    What matters is not what the idiots think is magically curing their kids, what matters is why we’ve allowed them to get out of chemo. And the reason for that is: because they were getting traditional aboriginal medicine. And they were (and are, in the case of J.J.). QED.

    *SHOULD* we let them out of chemo if they’re using traditional aboriginal medicine? That’s a very important but entirely separate question… but you’re not even going to *get* to that question unless you stop fixating on this ridiculous idea that anyone is fooled into thinking HHI is traditional aboriginal medicine.

    • Indi – these people aren’t getting crap ass medical care. They live in the same community I live in. These aren’t neglected people from the extreme north.

      Please educate you on what the judge said in the ruling here. He specifically speaks about longhouse upbringing etc. I personally think the judge made a big mistake. It is important to note that JJ’s mother did not take her off chemo until she came into contact with the sociopath from HHI who promised he could cure her. Up to that time, JJ’s mother was giving her herbal tea from their healer as well as chemo. JJ’s mother wasn’t even in the court house. This entire episode has been politicized because the quack sociopath in Florida offered an alternative and it has all been twisted to get the court to allow it. It is questionable whether the sections the judge felt didn’t contradict (ie: limiting First Nations rights when it comes to medicine if life and death is involved).

      I never said the mother didn’t know that HHI wasn’t aboriginal medicine but she used her First Nations rights to convince a judge to let her practice HHI quackery and traditional medicine (a cup of tea) instead of chemo. My argument is her First Nation’s rights do not trump JJ’s right to live. You are concentrating on red herrings.

      You are the one who read into my article about being “fooled into thinking HHI is traditional aboriginal medicine.” Did I ever say “that judge got fooled into thinking HHI was traditional medicine”. What I do say is most of that medicine JJ is being exposed to isn’t traditional medicine. There is a huge difference. Again, you are fixating on the wrong thing and making a mountain out of a molehill and reading in a whole lot of what I haven’t written at all.

      Again, I will quote Spear because he makes an important point:

      This campaign — a mixture of Christianity, alternative medicines, New Age dabbling, and traditional herbs — strikes me as an abuse of cultural integrity, rather than its defence. Unfortunately I’ve arrived too late: Justice Gethin Edward has already given the business a seal of approval.

    • I agree with (and appreciate) your analysis of the factors involved in this situation, but like Diana I think it’s bizarre that you seem to perceive only one of them – the precise grounds for the legal decision – as important. If a rule intended to let parents give their children traditional aboriginal medicine instead of standard (I’m halfway tempted to say “real”) medicine is being exploited by people who want to give their children a little traditional medicine and a lot of new age quackery, then that’s obviously an abuse rather than a reasonable invocation of the idea of cultural sovereignty. The parents of these girls have essentially been taking advantage of a loophole, either deliberately or because they stumbled into that position.

      So if we’re trying to work out what could be changed to prevent similar deaths in the future, then yes, we should be talking about the balance between protecting aboriginal people and giving them traditional freedoms, as you said at one point. But surely we should also be talking about whether, if they’re going to opt for traditional medicine, they should be required to commit to a primarily traditional plan of treatment and then stick to it. And we should be talking about how to dissuade them from placing their bets on faith-healing, vitamin drinks and so forth in the first place, not to mention (as you say) about whether it’s reasonable to allow parents to choose traditional over standard medicine for their children at all. There’s no reason not to consider all these points simultaneously.

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