The Lonesome Death of Makayla Sault

Ottawa Citizen, January 21, 2015. 

Because it cannot be put to any grand or cheap political purpose, the one true thing you’re not likely to hear spoken loudly and plainly about the unnecessary death of 11-year-old leukemia victim Makayla Sault on Monday is that in all likelihood, if she’d been a white girl, she’d still be alive.

It is certainly conceivable that if Makayla had not been a child of the Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nation, she’d have died anyway.

Ontario’s Health Care Consent Act allows all children to determine their own medical treatment, so long as their capacity for judgment is sufficient to appreciate “the reasonably foreseeable consequences of a decision or lack of decision.” When Makayla ended her chemotherapy treatments last May, she said it was because Jesus visited her in hospital and told her she was already healed. Makayla’s parents, in the throes of emotional agony at the time, are evangelical Christian pastors. Unsurprisingly, they deferred to the judgment of their child.

This doesn’t exactly leap from the public record as evidence of reasonable reflection upon the foreseeable life-and-death consequences of the decision Makayla was being expected to make. Everything that McMaster Hospital had explained to the Sault family about Makayla’s leukemia came down to the horrifying fact that it is known to be curable only by chemotherapy treatment, and without treatment, death is all but certain.

But what ultimately mattered was the claim to an Aboriginal identity that everybody was making on Makayla’s behalf.

It was the thing that mattered to the Children’s Aid Society of Brant, bound by the obligations set out in its 19-page policy on Diversity and Anti-Oppressive Practice. It was what mattered to New Credit Chief Bryan LaForme, who warned that hundreds of community members in the “Makayla Defence Force” would spring to action should the Children’s Aid Society attempt an apprehension.

It was what mattered after Makayla announced her visitation from Jesus and children’s aid society executive director Andrew Koster closed the family’s case file because “their choice to use traditional medicines was within their right.” It was what mattered after Makayla’s death this week, when Koster declared that by refusing treatment Makayla acted in accordance with Ontario law and “eloquently exercised her indigenous rights as a First Nations person.”

Just how Aboriginal rights should matter to any of this in the first place is something that beggars belief. No light on the subject was shed last November in a court decision that also involved McMaster Hospital and Brant child protection authorities and another 11-year-old aboriginal girl afflicted by a similarly lethal case of leukemia. That other girl is a Six Nations band member known publicly only as “J.J.”, owing to a ban on revealing her identity ordered by the Ontario Court of Justice.

What was clear enough about Judge Gethin Edward’s decision in J.J.’s case was his finding that a contemporary resort by a First Nations’ family to traditional aboriginal medicine is comprehensible as an Aboriginal right protected by Section 35 of the Constitution. This aspect of his decision should have been unsurprising, heartening and uncontroversial.

But what was never made plain was how it necessarily follows that J.J.’s mother was entitled by right to withdraw J.J. from life-saving chemotherapy. That was the crux of Judge Edward’s decision. For it to make sense, you’d have to believe that “modern” and “traditional” treatment could not co-exist in J.J.’s life, which is nonsense.

Even stranger, Judge Edward’s written ruling is unburdened by the wisdom at the very heart of the only higher-court Aboriginal rights decision he relied upon, the Supreme Court of Canada’s 1996 Aboriginal fishing rights decision in Van der Peet vs. the Queen: “Any right, aboriginal or other, by its very nature carries with it the obligation to use it responsibly. It cannot be used, for example, in a way which harms people, aboriginal or non‑aboriginal.”

The law may well be an ass, but it isn’t such an ass that Section 35 of the Constitution should be expected to recognize and affirm the right of J.J.’s parents to deny their child the only known cure for the disease that’s killing her. It’s not such an ass as to provide a constitutional entitlement to the aromatherapy, wheatgrass enemas, acupuncture and naturopathic massage sessions offered to cancer sufferers at $18,000 a customer by the dizzy white people at the notorious Hippocrates Health Institute of West Palm Beach, Florida.

This New Age wellness emporium, which even several of its former employees are now suing on the grounds that the whole operation is a “scam”, is where J.J. was taken by her parents after leaving McMaster Hospital. It is also where Makayla was taken by her parents in their pursuit of “alternative” treatments.

The proximate cause of Makayla’s death on Monday was a stroke. Oncologists will tell you a stroke is commonly the cause of death among leukemia victims left untreated by chemotherapy. Makayla Sault’s grieving parents say we should believe instead that the stroke was a consequence of those initial, excruciating chemotherapy treatments that Makayla decided to bring to an end last year.

We’re also expected to believe that J.J. remains in good health. This is at least somewhat believable, given what science explains about the time leukemia can take to eventually kill its victims. But we are expected to simply believe quite a lot of things about Makayla’s story. Like the one about it amounting to some eloquent expression of Aboriginal identity.

Don’t believe a word of it.

When a young Aboriginal girl dies a public death in Canada these days the narrative of first resort tends to be the tragedy of Canada’s “missing and murdered aboriginal women,” whose names number more than 1,000 from the past 30 years or so. Makayla wasn’t murdered, but something more than hair-splitting should be required to make you believe that Makayla Sault’s name does not belong on that dreadful death list.

Makayla’s case is exceptional mainly in the way the Canadian state is directly implicated in the decisions that led to her death. First Nation administrations are creatures of the federal Indian Act, the Brant Family and Children’s Services is a function of the Ontario Ministry of Children and Youth Services, and so on.

It is to Canada’s disgrace that Makayla’s story is also unexceptional in only one reasonably believable way.

In all likelihood, had she not been an Aboriginal girl, she would not be dead.

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