BRANTFORD – It’s a bitter pill to swallow.
A First Nations family has the constitutional right to choose traditional medicine for their seriously ill daughter — even if eschewing chemotherapy will likely cost the young girl her life.
But such was the precedent-setting decision made by Ontario Court Justice Gethin Edward Friday. To applause and tears in the packed courtroom, the judge rejected a bid by McMaster Children’s Hospital to force an 11-year-old Six Nations girl with leukemia into the care of the Children’s Aid Society and compel her to resume her chemo instead of continuing the traditional and alternative treatments sought by her mother.
“This is not an eleventh-hour epiphany employed to take her daughter out of the rigours of chemotherapy. Rather it is a decision made by a mother, on behalf of a daughter she truly loves, steeped in a practice that has been rooted in their culture from its beginnings,” Edward said in his 15-page ruling.
“It is this court’s conclusion therefore, that (her) decision to pursue traditional medicine for her daughter is her aboriginal right.”
The child, her name protected by a publication ban, was diagnosed at the Hamilton children’s hospital on Aug. 13 with high risk acute lymphoblastic leukemia, a cancer of the bone marrow. Two days later, she began what was supposed to be her first course of 32 days of chemotherapy.
But on Aug. 27, the mom informed the hospital that she didn’t want the chemo to continue for her daughter and instead planned to treat her with traditional medicines. Her oncologist immediately called on the Brant Families and Children’s Services to intervene for this “medical neglect.”
“This leukemia has an approximately 90% cure rate with the recommended treatment,” Dr. Vicky Breakley wrote in her faxed letter. “We feel that (the mom’s) decision to discontinue the only proven therapy will remove any chance of cure and that (she) will die of a curable condition.”
When the CAS refused to step in, even after learning on Sept. 8 that the mom planned to take her daughter from the hospital to a Florida centre for alternative medicine, the hospital took the unusual step of taking the child welfare agency to court to force them into apprehending the girl as a child in need of protection.
The judge, himself a member of Six Nations, called it a “very difficult case” but reaffirmed the parents’ right to refuse chemotherapy on constitutional grounds. An aboriginal right is guaranteed if it’s both an “integral” part of the culture and was practised before the arrival of Europeans — and Edward found traditional medicine satisfies both criteria.
“I cannot find that (she) is a child in need of protection when her substitute decision maker has chosen to exercise her constitutionally protected right to pursue their traditional medicine over the (hospital’s) stated course of treatment of chemotherapy.”
What kind of “traditional medicine” has she sought for her daughter? Her mom reportedly spent $18,000 to take her to the Hippocrates Health Institute in West Palm Beach, a new age health facility that advocates a raw food diet and a positive attitude can cure cancer.
Outside the court, Six Nations Chief Ava Hill applauded the ruling as a landmark decision upholding their right to pursue native healing. “This is monumental for our people all across the country,” she said.
But why can’t native remedies co-exist with modern medicine? By rejecting medical treatment outright, aren’t they endangering the health of aboriginal children?
“I don’t think we’re risking their lives. We love our kids. Her mother loves her to the world and back,” Hill insisted. “The only reason our people started getting sick is because your ancestors brought diseases, and gave us blankets that were infested with smallpox. We were looking after our people, and we can still do that. And I’m glad that this court is reaffirming that.”
At what cost?
This girl is suffering from a fatal childhood cancer that, thanks to modern medicine, has a remarkably high cure rate. Instead, her parents’ fight for their native “rights” may have just signed her death sentence.