Reflections on the Death of an 11 Year Old Aboriginal Girl Who Was Allowed to Forgo Chemo

stone of madnessBy Dr David Laing Dawson

I can think of a few metaphors that aptly express why one shouldn’t blog about this subject: mine field, thin ice, bramble bush, angels fear to tread. But…

We decided many years ago that we, (and by “we” I mean our organized educated societies, our western countries ruled by civil law), should protect our children, even protect them from their own parents if necessary. Well, truthfully, it wasn’t that many years ago, just over a hundred, and it seems we decided we needed to protect our pets and our farm animals a full generation before deciding we also needed to protect our children. But we did decide we really shouldn’t allow child labour, or pretend that sex is consensual before age 14 then 16, or marry off unwilling teenage females, or cage and beat or starve our toddlers. We know we should not allow a 13 year old to fly an airplane because she wants to, or drive a car before age 16, and even then only with training and supervision.

We expect parents to take their children for adequate medical care, and if they are not doing this we intervene. If we find that a hyper religious Christian couple have caged their 10 year old in a rat-infested basement for two weeks as correction for lying, or taking the Lord’s name in vain, we intervene. We take the child away. It is not a process without complexity but we do act. We do not allow parents to refuse treatment for TB if their child suffers from this disease.

So why on earth do we allow a ten year old, or a 12 year old, to decide with her parents, to forgo life-saving cancer treatment? Why this incredibly deferential attitude toward primitive thought and quackery when it is coming from a person or persons of First Nation Heritage? We wouldn’t buy it from a Roma, a Seventh Day Adventist, a practitioner of Santeria, an Irish healer, a Celtic priest, a new-age diva. So what makes us so cautious, so generous with the fictions of the ancient healing practices of First Nations?

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not against ritual and faith and any kind of spiritual or psychic healing practices if they give comfort and hope and do not replace actual proven treatment when such treatment exists. Go ahead and burn the incense, do the cupping, chew the wheat grass, wear the garlic, swallow the echinacea, and acupressure to your heart’s content, but if a bacterial pneumonia is the problem, for God’s sake take the antibiotics as well.

I will try to answer my own question because if that were my child, or grandchild, Family and Child Services and the court would have, I’m sure, taken my child into temporary custody and ensured that she be treated.

I think it is the problem of lingering racism and guilt, the guilt being a response to our own history and perhaps lingering hints of racism. My and your ancestors certainly did not treat the First Nations people well. Even when our intentions were basically good, the solutions proved destructive: residential schools, Reserves. So we feel guilty, and angry. Guilty that we still have people living in our rich country in third world conditions. Suicide is endemic, alcoholism epidemic. Many of the young men are in prison, many of the young women disappear or die prematurely. The fire truck does not work; the water treatment system fails. Nepotism flourishes.

I had dinner with the chief of a Northern Ontario band many years ago. He was in a wheel chair having lost his legs on a rail road track in what is often called “an alcohol related accident”.  He was clever and wise and had something of a sardonic sense of humor.  For some reason I was curious about the apparent lack of curse words in his language, and asked about this. He smiled at me and said, “You must remember that the Indian had nothing to be angry about before the white man came.”

Well, I know that is not really true, and I know that they are no more likely to be in touch with, in harmony with, the mysteries of the universe, energies of the wind and rain, the forest animals, the living earth itself than I am (or at least David Suzuki). Though I am sure their ancestors were more in touch with night and day and rain and wind and birth and death, with drought and storm, as were mine living  in their sod huts, cooking over peat fires and herding their sheep through the rocky pastures of the Orkney Islands, unaware, I’m sure, of Galileo’s discoveries, or of Dr. John Snow  staunching the spread of Cholera in London.

No. They don’t have any special lock on the magic of the universe, the spirits of the animal kingdom, the nature of healing, the mysteries of the our cells and organs, of our mortality. They are merely human, like you and I. And Canadian. Living in the twenty first century, in centrally heated houses, with TV and the internet, driving cars, burning fossil fuels. And their children deserve the same protection as mine do from the superstitious beliefs of our ancestors.

6 thoughts on “Reflections on the Death of an 11 Year Old Aboriginal Girl Who Was Allowed to Forgo Chemo

  1. Possibly the people of the Orkneys had a few Galileos of their own judging from some of those Stone Henge like circles that lie there. Is there not some aspect of astronomy connected with them? I sense your feeling of helplessness Dr. Dawson re: the possible preventable death of a child, but my first question as a social worker is what were the cultural competence skills of the medical profession who talked with the parents. And were they cognizant of the history of not only residential schools, but later the swoop of child apprehensions that followed when parents who as children had been stripped of culture/language/ clothes/ religion and most importantly their parents, (and the opportunity to model their parenting) resorted to alcohol abuse.
    Cultural clashes where western medicine is involved are evident now between the Chinese who believe in balance within the body as opposed to assigning each organ to a particular specialty. I appreciate western medicine because it has saved lives within my own family. That is the bottom line. But Western medicine would be even better if we put more emphasis in trying to understand one another. As a parent of someone with a serious mental illness, I have experienced so much frustration in talking with system people, that I am about to throw in the towel. I would like them to understand what it feels like to try and do what seems sometimes like the most monumental task with your hands tied behind your back not just by privacy legislation but by discrimination, occasional overt hostility and a profound lack of adequate services, including clinical guidance for family caregivers.
    Future tragedies like the preventable death of a young aboriginal girl or the preventable shootings of a young man with schizophrenia would happen less if there was more of an effort to understand each other’s situation, in my opinion.


    1. if it were a matter of simply sensitivity and working to change the point of view , it might be reasonable to spend time in order to hope for a change of mind within certain groups I think then that you have a point, but despite the evidence against measle vaccinations causing autism flocks of people still persist with there scaremongering. often making a lot of money while peddling their wares while they disregard sound science.

      Therefore there is little real chance of getting to the best option. I suggest that one would be wasting precious time . Seldom do homeopaths and Naturopaths give up on some of their funny ideas. When a serious disease strikes, time is often of the essence, and it is absolutely grievous and criminal that the outfit in the USA where the facility plied the girl with crushed whatever, claiming that the concoction. would heal, when there was a serious treatment which likely would work boggles the mind. In this case there was a judge who rendered a decision to baffle even the wisdom of Solomon. Children need wise adult protection.

      There are so many people awaiting treatment in forensic psychiatric wards despite a serious history of mental illness because the law has made in difficult to treat promptly. If one allowed a diabetic child to die because of withholding insulin then there would be public outrage.


      1. Apologize for terrible typos and grammatical errors and poor punctuation,but I am slowly coming to life after a biological clobbering of an awful strain of influenza. I am not too clever with this one. After six days I am barely out of bed. One very wise Dean of Medicine once told me that biology is always one step ahead, and he personally was irritated by some of the soft sciences. I am a little more tolerant but he had his point


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