Makayla Sault and how the media failed Canadians

In our area – two girls, both 11, were diagnosed with leukaemia in 2014.

Makayla Sault was diagnosed in January 2014 with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukaemia and a Positive Philadelphia Chromosome. She bravely endured 11 weeks of chemotherapy before she made the decision to stop those treatments. She was Annishnabe from Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nation. Sadly she died on January 19, 2015 of a stroke.

In the midst of her chemotherapy treatments Makayla had a spiritual experience. This is not uncommon for other humans who are in a personal crisis. She was a Christian. She had a vision of Christ and he gave her words of comfort. Regardless of whether or not you believe in Jesus, this is something that gave her strength during terminal illness.

Tragically, certain journalists felt that over and above harm reduction it was “in the interest of the public” to take this very personal and meaningful spiritual event of a terminally-ill paediatric cancer patient and exploit it to write a story. To prove a point? Arguably, to fan the flames of the ‘anti’; anti-christian, anti-native, or anti-free-will.

The fact that journalists and bloggers used the spiritual event of a terminally-ill paediatric cancer patient to paint her parents as religious fanatics and Makayla as the victim of child abuse is reprehensible and against every ethical code of journalistic standards that I have ever read.

It is also the greatest example of how the mainstream media is failing the Canadian public when it comes to reporting on the indigenous people of this land.

Sadly, some of the largest and most credible Canadian news sources took this tragedy and painted an ugly picture of the people and communities of Six Nations & New Credit.

Maclean’s wrote a boldly erroneous statement earlier this month saying that Elected Chief Ava Hill of Six Nations of the Grand River permitted Makayla Sault to die. This is not a factual at all, and quite embarrassing for Maclean’s.

Chief Ava Hill had no authority to sway Makayla’s choice for or against chemotherapy. Chief Hill was not involved in the investigation with Makayla’s case because Makayla is a member of Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nation and not a member of Six Nations.

You would think that a large scale magazine like Maclean’s would have gotten that right. Perhaps they are short on fact checkers?

What is even more disappointing is the recent CBC ‘analysis’ on the case of second child who opted to leave chemotherapy in favour of indigenous treatments and alternative therapies. An analysis not done by an oncologist or a traditional healer – but from a journalist who met the girl once.

Because there was a widely publicized court case and publication ban regarding the second child I can’t use her name. I will call her Eksa:ah – which means little girl in the Gayogohono language.

Eksa:ah was diagnosed in August 2014 with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukaemia as well. She had 11 days of chemo before she and her family decided to pursue indigenous medicine instead. She is Kanienkeha’ka from the Six Nations of the Grand River.

The author of the CBC analysis was Connie Walker, lead reporter for CBC Aboriginal. Walker is Cree from the Okanese First Nation in Saskatchewan. Walker wrote in her analysis that as a First Nations person herself she was confident none of her ancestors pursued a vegan diet, took IV vitamins or used any of the other supplemental therapies that Eksa:ah is recieving.

Historically speaking she is correct. The Cree did not eat a vegan diet or pursue those modern alternative treatments. However Eksa:ah is not a Cree. Eksa:ah and her family are Kanienke-ha’ka of the Haudenosaune.

As an educated First Nations woman and producer of the acclaimed “8th Fire” series, one would assume that Walker knows the emotional distress making this kind of pan-Indian critical analysis would be to both the family and community of this Kanienkeha’ka paediatric cancer patient.

The Cree of Saskatchewan and the Haudenosaune of the Great Lakes region are incomparable. Pardon my cliche but we are talking apples and oranges here. Unrelated nations with completely different political, traditional and ceremonial practices – especially when it comes to medicine.

But the piece was published, under the banner of CBC. To borrow her phrasing as a First Nations person myself I can say with confidence that for my people, the Haudenosaune, it seems like her indigenous identity was used to execute a public act of lateral violence.

Additionally Eksa:ah has not become a vegan, but she is engaging in something that both the Cree and Haudenosaune, as well as several other indigenous nations have done for generations – she is fasting.

If I can teeter on the edge of pan-Indianism here, most indigenous people will recognize that anyone on a fast is on a sacred journey. A journey that not many indigenous people would openly criticize.

Ironically, Walker’s own Okanese First Nation is one of the 16 member communities who run All Nations Healing Hospital in Fort Qu’Appelle, Saskatchewan. This indigenous run hospital has an entire wing dedicated to indigenous medicine called the White Raven Hospital. That centre employs a number of Cree elders and provides traditional medicines, sweat lodges and ceremonial healing to the Cree people. Point being, indigenous people from many nations are pursuing indigenous treatments as an alternative to pharmaceuticals – and the infrastructures are in place across the country for us to do so.

Both the story of Makayla Sault and the case of Eksa:ah are important and have independent merits that indeed are in the interest of the public to know. But when news organizations are not fact checking, publishing incorrect information, abusing the credentials of aboriginal reporters to legitimize their coverage of indigenous issues and editorializing nearly to the point of character assassinations – they are no longer upholding their responsibility to their audience.

Spreading this kind of misinformation does Canadians a great disservice. As a result we have online message boards and social media streams filling up with racist rhetoric; fuelling anti-native sentiments with “proof” penned by official media sources.

Not to mention the inference readers catch onto. The thoughts which are left unsaid speak to all of us from between the lines; a crude sediment of bitterness and prejudice that sinks to the bottom of the Canadian consciousness only to be stirred up the next time another indigenous health issue “breaks”.

As journalists we have extensive guidelines regarding accuracy and ethics to ensure that facts come first and that harm reduction is a priority. Why then, when it comes to indigenous news – and at the very least in the wake of two families who have been caring for paediatric cancer patients – are those standards not upheld?

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1 Comment

  1. What bothers me is there is no investigation of two 11 year olds and god knows how many others that have developed this particular cancer from that small area. Are we talking pollution or some other toxin perhaps mold that is causing young people to get cancer? We just never seem to hear WHY> Just everyone throwing in their emotionally charged thoughts on treatment of someone elses child.

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