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Wayne K. Spear Headshot

Why Does the Fight For Aboriginal Rights Equal a Rejection of Science?

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The life-threatening illness of an 11-year-old Brantford-area girl was no business of mine, until it had been made a cultural rights campaign.

I've gotten used to the conspiracy theories and the pseudo- and even anti-science critiques levelled against doctors, hospitals, and modern medicine. It would have been possible, and in my view preferable, to have kept the discussion limited to its proper focus: the debatable right of parents to choose if, and how, their children will receive science-based medical treatment when their preference is for something different. Or perhaps we could deliberate whether children themselves have the right to make this decision, and at what age.

The illness of a young girl is saddening, and the preceding topics are important and timely. But now, with this court case, we've gone off the rails into unhelpful territory.

A growing number of people are turning away from, and against, science and modernity, and for a number of causes -- environmentalism, mistrust of corporations, dislike of secularism, traditionalism, and in extreme cases religious fundamentalism. Alternative medicine has been a growth industry for years, and there's no reason to expect a reversal of this trend. Get ready for more parents who prefer crystal to chemotherapy, vitamins to vaccines, and prayer to Prednisone.

That last one has received less-than-due attention in the media. When the mother of Makayla Sault told the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network that she had "initially went against [her] beliefs and logic and started chemotherapy at the McMaster Children's Hospital in Hamilton Ontario," she mentioned "ancient Indigenous knowledge" and the Hippocrates Health Institute of West Palm Beach, Florida. But neither she nor her pastor husband, nor her supporters, nor the media (to my knowledge, at least) have mentioned the one belief that perhaps most makes sense of it all: the belief and active prominence of the parents in a fundamentalist Christian sect that teaches the merits of faith healing.

Now imagine that this case had been wrapped in the cause of faith healing, as earlier this year the Schaibles of Pennsylvania had attempted to ennoble the death of their eight-month-old son -- the second such death of a child in their family, both from easily preventable and treatable cases of pneumonia. No, that wouldn't have done. The cause of indigenous rights, in contrast, doubtless presented itself as a more playable move. And since I'm a Mohawk myself, I've some flint in that game and must object.

From my point of view it would be gratifying to see the cause of indigenous rights asserted on something actually indigenous, rather than upon the creative practices of a Florida massage therapist or the proposal that Jesus cures. In some hospitals, an intergrationst approach has been taken, in which elders and cultural potocols have been brought into the institution. Belief in a culture doesn't have to manifest itself in absolutist choices between supposed cultural purity and betrayal. Unless, I suppose, one is an absolutist.

I'm embarrassed by the thought that this campaign is only promoting the idea that Indians are credulous, as well as unclear on the difference between Onkwehonwe-Neha and New-agism. I suppose the right to say no to medical science is indeed a right, but it seems like a shabby right to me in an era when science-based medicine is making considerable advances.

This campaign -- a mixture of Christianity, alternative medicines, New Age dabbling, and traditional herbs -- strikes me as an abuse of cultural integrity, rather than its defence. Unfortunately I've arrived too late: Justice Gethin Edward has already given the business a seal of approval.

In the background of this all is another under-reported reality, that for decades relations between native communities and child welfare agencies have been toxic. Until both the causes and effects of a fractured system are addressed, children are going to be caught in the middle of disputes that are much larger than these individual cases. And just so, as the present McMaster case was developing, the elected chief and council of Six Nations was undertaking the expulsion of the Brant Family and Children's Services from Ohsweken.

The expressed long-term goal of many native communities is a community-developed and community-run child welfare agency that has local support and legitimacy. I myself look forward to such an arrangement. In my ideal world, this agency would already be in place, and it would be looking unromantically on the dubious claims of this aboriginal rights crusade.


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