NEW CREDIT — A celebration of Makayla Sault’s life gave people still in mourning an opportunity to smile.
On Tuesday morning, several of her friends and family took time to honour her memory, followed by a moment of silence in the Lloyd S. King Elementary school gymnasium.
Makayla was known by her friends and family as a young girl who loved people, loved having fun and loved Jesus Christ — yet her decision to undergo traditional treatment instead of chemotherapy to battle her leukaemia made her known across Canada as a fighter, full of spirit.
She died at the age of 11 and her passing sparked a nationwide conversation on Aboriginal people’s right to opt out of the health system.
The commemoration ceremony opened in prayer and then a song was sung about journeying home to the star world, followed by a reading from Chief of New Credit R. Stacey LaForme.
“Children are our gifts, our treasures,” said LaForme in the poem he wrote. “We make sure that when the time comes you are ready to be our doctors, lawyers, singers and drummers. But sometimes the creator has different plans.”
Christina Hill-Harris sang a beautiful cover of one of Makayla’s favourite songs, I Can Only Imagine, by MercyMe, followed by a reading from Makayla’s brother Nathaniel and first-cousin Marissa Rain Johnson.
“He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge,” said Johnson, quoting her cousin Makayla’s favourite Bible passage.
A slideshow was prepared and shown to the audience and then a closing prayer was recited.
In addition to the ceremony, Dr. Dawn Martin-Hill from McMaster University released a report, highlighting positive changes that have been made within the system since Makayla refused typical, western treatment.
Makayla and her family faced harsh criticisms and media backlash, due to her parents supporting Makayla’s choice. Some went so far as to say that it was neglectful to remove her from clinical care and questions were raised concerning child welfare.
Martin-Hill promised Makayla that she would reach out to her colleagues at McMaster Hospital to ensure that what she experienced would never happen to another First Nations child. McMaster then partnered with Six Nations Health Services and hosted several meetings with the focus being, “how can we harmonize traditional medicine and western care?”
One of the primary recommendations taken from the meetings was the need for more education. It was found that throughout Makayla’s journey, the medical team had little to no awareness of Indigenous culture.
“Throughout their decision, it was the family’s [the Sault’s] hope to educate health care providers about traditional healing and holistic approaches,” said Martin-Hill in her report.
Other recommendations reported by elders and healers at the meetings were — community education, policy review and development, patient centred care, support of community based healing lodges, welcoming environments and sacred spaces within health care facilities.
Educating health care providers should include basic cultural competency as well as deeper education in respect to the history, geography, ecological and political realities of the territory. It was also recommended that the community members themselves were in need of a common understanding of their traditional medicines.
Finding ways to support harmonization should not only focus on developing new policies, but also amending existing ones — amending existing policies would represent the quickest and easiest way to show true commitment in harmonizing Health Care and Indigenous Healing. An example of this is existing protocols with respect to tissue samples removed from patients.
“Many would appreciate the opportunity to be allowed to dispose of these ceremonially, yet most are unaware of the policies,” reads Martin-Hill’s report.
One of the most meaningful exchanges identified at the meetings were that a caregiver should greet a patient in the patients language. A consultation where a doctor simply used the words “baby”, “hello”, or “good” in an Indigenous language were found to be meaningful to those that experienced it.
“Learning a few words sends a powerful message to First Nations people and creates a welcoming environment,” said Martin-Hill.
The last recommendation from the meetings was that sacred space should be given to those that require ceremonies and special practices. These spaces should be considered as distinct from interfaith chapels and prayer rooms as much as possible.
McMaster University has initiated a new working committee with the families of Indigenous children as advisors. Six Nations Health will continue to develop new services that incorporate traditional medicine.
“If we can achieve anything from her loss, let us all move forward with the shared purpose of respect and support of Indigenous medicine as our goal,” said Martin-Hill.