Today, I sent the following open letter to a large collection of Canadian media operators. My hope is that it might persuade a journalist or two to investigate this sad story further.
Dear First Nations Leaders, First Nations Media, and Canadian Media:
As you know, Judge Edward’s decision a month ago to allow the mother of an 11-year-old girl to stop her from getting Western medical care so that she can instead receive traditional First Nations treatment was celebrated by some as a vital assertion of First Nations’ rights. Maybe, but it’s also a devastating decision for a little girl who will most likely give up her life for the rights of her parents.
The right of the ancestors of colonized people to retain their own customs and laws is hard to argue; however, those freedoms are not morally absolute. No one has the right to put their children in mortal danger for the so-called purpose of staying true to their culture.
Preserving heritage connects us with each other and with our past, but, as our scientific understanding of the world has advanced, we have discovered that certain historical practices were not good for us. More to the point, traditional First Nations medicine has been proven to be less able to combat leukemia than Western medicine. I don’t doubt the sincerity of a parent who says she is doing what she believes is best for her daughter’s health. But, the fact is, she’s wrong, and, for the sake of the little girl, somebody must tell her so. Given that Judge Edward has announced that the Canadian legal system won’t pressure this mother to protect her daughter, the task falls to First Nations leaders, and the media.
If the court is right that Canada cannot tell this woman she must help her daughter, that does not give her immunity from societal pressure. First Nations leaders have an obligation to protect their people from this misguided over-reaching application of what it means to be true to one’s culture. Please tell this mother that she can still be a true citizen of her First Nation while allowing the medical achievements of her global community to save her daughter’s life. Helping a First Nations child using Western medicine is not subverting her culture; instead, it is giving this little girl a chance to grow up to be a First Nations woman who, if she chooses, can celebrate the best of her heritage. If she dies, she will not be able to do so.
Meanwhile, the Canadian media is supposed to be a watchdog for all of us against injustice. And yet, few journalists have asked tough questions, and dug into this story (Terry Glavin of the Ottawa Citizen is a rare exception). If this were a non-aboriginal girl whose life was about to be sacrificed for the sake of outdated medical practices, the media would surely pounce on the story with anger, or at least passion. Why is this little girl’s life any different? Racism? Maybe, but I suspect instead that the Canadian media is afraid that questioning this mother’s decision would be seen as a paternalistic attack on First Nations. It is an understandable fear, but when it is at the expense of an innocent child’s life, allowing such anxiety to muzzle one’s journalistic obligations is a moral failure. Sometimes, to be worthy of the name, journalists must ask unpopular questions. Please investigate this story before it’s too late.
Since sending the above letter and posting the adjoining blog yesterday, a National Post article by former managing editor Jonathan Kay has been sent to me by a friend. Mr. Kay is, I think, hard-lined, but courageous as he states:
“Canadian adults should be free to indulge their fringe medical beliefs—and to die for them, too. But they should not be free to take a Canadian child down with them in the process. One hopes that Justice Edward comes to this conclusion before it is too late.”
Hear, hear! I am delighted to see another counterexample to my criticism of Canadian media’s fear of a PC reckoning. It is evidence that the Canadian media is not always as mute on such important subjects as I have suggested, but also that, when they are, they will not always be exiled from the public conversation (Mr. Kay is now the editor-in-chief at The Walrus).
Nevertheless, such counter-cultural-relativistic articles are still in the minority, and the court’s decision in favour of First Nations parental rights over a First Nations child’s right to life has not been nearly as controversial as it should have been. So I maintain my plea to the Canadian media to revive their interest in the life of this child before her time runs out.