Tuesday 18 November 2014

Aboriginal Cultural Rights versus a Child's Life: A Canadian Case

Aboriginal Cultural Rights versus a Child’s Life: A Canadian Case
Over the last few months an interesting legal case has been going on in Brantford, Ontario, a small city near where I live. The judge’s ruling is likely to generate much commentary and lots of legal articles.
Makayla Sault (on the right), picture taken froom facebook
Brantford is near two Aboriginal reserves, the New Credit First Nation and Six Nations Reserve. (Reserves are the bits of land that the Canadian government left for Aboriginal use during its colonization of this country). In the last year, two11-year-old  girls from these reserves were diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (cancer) at the McMaster Children’s Hospital, the hospital connected to the McMaster University medical school in Hamilton, Ontario. With their parents, both girls have refused chemotherapy. The first girl was identified as Makayla Sault from New Credit First Nation (Aboriginal groups are identified as “nations” in Canada in recognition of their pre-colonial sovereignty). She is a very sweet-looking girl and it is heartbreaking to think of how ill she is.
By court order, the second girl, from Six Nations, has not been identified, although she is referred to as J.J. With J.J.’s agreement, her mother withdrew her from chemotherapy at the McMaster Children’s Hospital and took her to an organization called the Hippocrates Health Institute in Florida for “alternative” medical treatment that she believed was compatible with indigenous Six Nations traditional medicine; the Florida treatment consisted of nutrition and naturopathic therapy.
The individual in charge of the Florida centre is not a physician: the Institute is licensed by the state of Florida only to provide massage therapy, while its director is licensed to provide nutritional counselling. However, the director has been at Six Nations Reserve to advocate his form of treatment, although I’m not sure from the reports I read when this happened.  Presumably treatment at the Hippocrates Institute is not free. This is the same centre Makayla’s parents took her to. At first, after she went there, she felt much better, but on November 14, 2014 it was reported that she was now very ill and her father was asking the world for prayers.
Neither the hospital nor Brant Family and Children’s Services (BFCS), the agency responsible for children’s welfare at the two reserves, took any action to prevent Makayla’s removal from chemotherapy. But in the second case, when the BFCS refused to act, the hospital went to court, asking a judge to order the BFCS to seize J.J. and force treatment upon her. This is a common type of action, for example when a Jehovah’s Witness child is deemed by doctors to need a blood transfusion and the parents refuse (Jehovah’s Witnesses are a religious group that do not believe in blood transfusions). 
On November 14, 2014, the judge rendered his decision. He ruled that Aboriginal people’s constitutional rights overrode the hospital’s right to demand co-operation from the BFCS to force the child to undergo treatment. On October 16 the judge was quoted as saying “Maybe First Nations culture doesn’t require every child to be treated with chemotherapy and to survive for that culture to have value.” (Tom Blackwell, Financial Post, “Judge says forcing aboriginal girl to stay in chemo is to ‘impose our world view on First Nation culture’”, October 16, 2014). The judge also said that the aboriginal right to practice traditional medicine could not be “qualified as a right only if it is proven to work by employing a Western medical paradigm.” (Kelly Grant, “Ontario court judge rules hospital can’t force chemo on native girl,” The Globe and Mail, Nov. 15, 2014, p. A20).
I am not a lawyer or a legal scholar, so I don’t know the details of Aboriginal rights. Canada’s 1982 Charter of Rights and Freedoms does say in Article  “The guarantee in this Charter of certain rights and freedoms shall not be construed so as to abrogate or derogate from any aboriginal, treaty or other rights or freedoms that pertain to the aboriginal peoples of Canada.” Apparently the judge interpreted this to mean that Aboriginal people have the right to choose what medicines they wish to use, even if the best advice from what he called “Western” medicine suggests they won’t work.
The doctors at the McMaster children’s hospital said that with chemotherapy, the two girls have an 80-95 per cent chance of survival. They also said that there are no known cases of children surviving this type of cancer without chemotherapy.
 I am a mother too, and I can imagine how terrible it must be for the mothers of these girl
the McMaster Children’s hospital
s to watch them endure the pain of chemotherapy. If my son had contracted cancer at age 11 and required two years of chemotherapy, I might also have wanted to look for alternative treatments. In J.J.’s case, the mother’s claim is that the alternative therapy she has chosen in Florida is compatible with Aboriginal medicine. The judge seems to have decided that whether it is truly aboriginal, in the sense of having been a traditional medicine within that culture, is irrelevant. Whatever an Aboriginal person declares is traditional medicine is so, even if it is a treatment offered by presumably non-aboriginal people in Florida.
In other contexts, I think very few human rights activists would accept that a child’s life could be sacrificed for cultural reasons. Children, like all human beings, have a right to life. Perhaps we could prevaricate and say that not giving a child medical treatment that she says she doesn’t want is an act of omission, not comparable to denying her treatment she does want. But I do not think an 11-year-old is capable of independent judgment or understanding of the consequences of withdrawing the treatment.
I also have some questions about all this. First, why the judge did call recognized international medical practice “Western?” Does he have evidence that people living in, or from, places such as China, India or Africa successfully undergo treatments other than chemotherapy when they contract cancer?  I thought scientific medicine was international. 
Another question is about the laws that govern people who purport to practice medicine without a license. I have a hard time understanding how an individual from Florida who is licensed only as a nutrition counselor can be permitted into Canada to give talks in which he claims to know ways to cure cancer other than chemotherapy.
The mother of the second girl was quoted as saying “I will not have my daughter treated with poison…She has to become a healthy mother and grandmother.” (Connie Walter, CBC News, October 1, 2014. “First Nations girl’s family rejects chemo, hospital goes to court to force treatment”).  The poison she was referring to was chemotherapy, which is designed to kill cancerous cells so that healthy cells can grow. I hope the mother’s ambitions are realized and that J.J. has a long and healthy life, but I fear that by rejecting “Western” medicine the mother and her daughter have made a fatal choice.

Saturday 1 November 2014

Terrorism vs. "Mischief": Canada's Double Standard

Terrorism vs. “Mischief”: Canada’s Double Standard

On October 22, 2014, a young Canadian named Michael Zahaf Bibeau attacked Canada’s Parliament in Ottawa.  He managed to evade the (very light) security controlling access to the building and entered it, carrying a shotgun. Fortunately, he was shot and killed by security forces before he managed to reach the rooms where Canada’s ruling party, the Conservatives, as well as the opposition New Democratic Party were holding their caucuses. Had he entered the building an hour later, he might have been able to kill the Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, or members of Cabinet or ordinary Members of Parliament as they left their caucus room.

Before reaching Parliament, Zahaf Bibeau approached the National War Memorial just outside it. There he shot and killed Corporal Nathan Cirillo, one of the unarmed soldiers standing guard over the memorial.

Corporal Cirillo became the country’s symbol of grief over what many people considered a terrorist attack. The murderer’s name suggested his origins were Arabic and French-Canadian. H
The late Nathan Cirillo, taken from Cirillio instegram account
e had tried to obtain a Libyan passport (his father was from Libya) shortly before the attack on Parliament but had been refused. He identified as a Muslim and had made a video shortly before the attack, mentioning Allah. But other Muslims considered him dangerous and a mosque in Vancouver which he had once attended had had its locks changed to keep him out.

This was enough evidence for many people to decide the attack was terrorism. Two days earlier, one Martin Couture-Rouleau, a convert to Islam, had attacked two soldiers in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu near Montreal, killing one. He was then shot dead by police. It appeared he had been “radicalized’ during his conversion. Many Canadians, including me, wondered if the two events had been co-ordinated, especially as the Islamic State (formerly ISIS) in Iraq had threatened Canada a short while earlier.

But now it seems that both these attacks were the work of mentally disturbed Canadians. Indeed this was the position of the level-headed leader of the New Democratic Party, Tom Mulcair. It’s also my position. Had they been around twenty years earlier, these two men might have become neo-Nazis, or crazed survivalists, or they might have murdered for incomprehensible reasons, like the young man who murdered twenty schoolchildren and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut on December 14, 2012, before committing suicide (and after killing his own mother).

Corporal Cirillo was from Hamilton, Ontario, where I live, and was buried there on October 29. It was a national event, with the Prime Minister in attendance. It was also front-page news in my local newspaper, The Hamilton Spectator. There was much talk of how he was the victim of a terrorist attack.

Hamilton’s Hindu Saraj Temple after the attack, wiki commons
That very same day, on the same front page of The Hamilton Spectator, another event was reported without a word about terrorism. On September 15, 2001, a few days after the Al-Qaeda attack on New York City, a mosque in Hamilton was defaced and Hamilton’s Hindu Saraj Temple was firebombed. The firebombing happened at night and, fortunately, no one was in the building. The temple was reduced to cinders and the perpetrators were never caught. However, 12 years later police received information that led them to arrest Christopher Pollard, Damien Marsh, and Scott Ryan, by then all in their mid-30s. Pollard and Marsh were convicted on a charge of mischief. They were fined a mere $10,000 each and sentenced to 80 hours of community service, with no jail time. Pollard expressed remorse to the police. The case against Ryan was still before the courts.

My question is, why wasn’t the firebombing of Hamilton’s Hindu Temple considered a terrorist act? Perhaps Canada’s terrorism laws do not apply retroactively to crimes committed on September 15, 2001. I am sure, nevertheless, that members of the temple must have felt terrorized. According to a victim impact statement read by one of its members at the trial of Pollard and Marsh, the firebombing was “our very own 9/11.” She continued, “The message that this hate crime spoke in volumes was ‘you do not belong here’ and ‘This is not your place.” (Molly Hayes, The Hamilton Spectator, October 29, 2014, p. A5)

But popular and media discussion did not describe these men as terrorists. Perhaps it was because they were white (or so their pictures in the paper suggest) or perhaps because their motive was not religious but merely racist. Or did they get a pass because they didn’t actually kill anyone (by sheer luck) or because stupidity is considered more understandable than mental illness? Their defence lawyer said they were young and stupid: they were also drunk at the time.

Why is it merely mischief when three white men bomb a Hindu temple, burning
Tom Mulcair, wiki commons
it to the ground? If three stupid, drunk young Muslim Canadians (yes, some Muslims do drink) had firebombed a Christian church in Hamilton on September 15, 2001 and then got away with it for 12 years before being caught, would they now be convicted merely of mischief?

Or would they be considered proof of a deep and long-lasting conspiracy against their own country?