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.

Seth McDonough

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.


  1. Well put, sir. I do not necessarily share your enthusiasm for the “Western” medical system, though there is no doubt that everyone has the best interests of patients in mind. Who knows? Strange and unexplainable (by Western scientific methods) cures have happened. However, let me tell you that if I had cancer I would not be running to the nearest naturuopath.

  2. Love your phrasing ‘her global community’. It is similar to the old idea that communities would take a responsibility in taking care of each of the children who were living in it, and talk to or take under their wing children who were clearly becoming separated from the mainstream of care.

  3. You’re right, Seth: PC fear of appearing anti-Aboriginal prevents journalists from doing their jobs, and the result is a kind of racism: the likely death, or at least the faulty medical treatment, of an Aboriginal girl is seen as an acceptable sacrifice to the god of socially-approved thinking.

  4. Thank you TomD, Tom2, and Janice.

    TomD: I don’t mean to suggest that Western Medicine is a perfect elixir for all that ails society, nor that alternative medicines are free from any valuable offerings (I hear naturopathic placebos are some of the best in the world ;)). However, when it comes to cancer, as you say, it seems that the evidence for Western medical success (compared to that of her rivals) has been impressive.

    Tom2: I agree with your celebration of the notion of a child’s global community (not only because it compliments me :)). Most agree that parents should have some freedom to raise their children under the guidance of their own beliefs, but we must impose a limit where those beliefs will lead to demonstrable and significant harm; it is up to the child’s wider community to step in in such cases.

    Janice: I agree that the media’s alleged fear of going to PC jail for crimes against politically correct opinion may be the leading villain here. However, I wonder if, in this case, the media’s worries are overblown. The fact is, Jonathan Kay survived his criticism of First Nations medicine, and is now working for a progressive magazine; so maybe, in this case, the public’s general concern for the rights of this child would actually overrule its PC instincts, and would allow the media to fight for this girl without being condemned. This may be a genuine case where the only thing to fear (about contravening PC orthodoxy) is, in fact, fear itself.

  5. This issue brings to mind another case a couple of years ago where a First Nations child was adopted by a Philippino family. By all indications, these people were good parents and had bonded with the child, but then authorities found a First Nations adoptive family that they deemed to be better suited because they were from the same cultural background as the child. I believe a legal battle ensued. I don’t remember the details or the outcome, but this is another example of a child’s overall welfare being sacrificed or at least put at risk in the name of culture.

  6. Thanks Natalie. I think that would be another case where there was a clear harm being provoked by an appeal to the universal righteousness of culture. Regardless of where one stands on the significance of maintaining First Nations culture by keeping First Nations offspring with First Nations family, I think we can draw a clear, unbreakable line at the point that a non-First Nations family has – even if by a governmental mistake – taken a First Nations child into their family. The potential harm both to the child and, just importantly, to the family that has absorbed her into their little community, is too important to be overruled for the sake of making sure she inherits the culture of her ancestors.

  7. I agree with the above comment; the crux of the matter for me seems to be the total absence of addressing the immediate peril the child is in.

  8. This is a very sad situation. I’m glad they haven’t ruled out the possibility of still seeking chemotherapy treatment in the future. I only hope the family won’t be too proud to leave until it’s too late. Tragic. As you said, she is best able to celebrate her heritage if she survives.

  9. Thanks Tarrin and Meggles.

    Tarrin, I think in some way the “triumph for First Nations rights” people are looking at this in an abstract level instead of considering the peril to a real person.

    Meggles, brilliantly said. I hope pride doesn’t get in the way of reason here. With the PC celebration of this decision, I hope the mother doesn’t feel obligated to keep to it.

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