This article is in response to one that appeared in last week’s Silhouette titled “Honouring Mykayla (sic) Sault’s Legacy.” It was in part a report on a forum at Mac about the indigenous experience of the Canadian healthcare system, and in part a call to listen to and respect the perspectives of indigenous peoples. Naturally, this is a noble sentiment, but I found the implications that the authors drew to be troubling, to say the least.
Although not strictly relevant to the larger point that this article was trying to make, it contained some misleading points that are worth clarifying. For one, it claimed that the media downplayed the toll that chemotherapy took on Makayla Sault’s body. This is false. The very first sentence of the Canadian Press’ report on the event, picked up by CBC, The Globe and Mail, The Ottawa Citizen and CTV, reads “Chemotherapy took such a horrific toll on Makayla Sault’s weak body that she begged her parents to take her out of treatment and try instead traditional medicine.” This is not what downplaying looks like.
The article also claimed that the media neglected Makayla’s legacy of cooperation between biomedical and traditional medicine. However, a paragraph appearing in the same Canadian Press wire story picked up by so many mainstream outlets reads, “[Makayla] continued to receive treatment from her family physician, Dr. Jason Zacks, as well as an oncologist at McMaster hospital. She also received traditional medicine from a healer near her home on the Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nation.” In all, the Canadian media’s reportage was not as inaccurate as the authors contended.
Their article then went on to make some troubling points about traditional medicine. It argued that there are different ways of knowing, that evidence is not necessarily something quantitatively measured, that the “Western worldview” isn’t universal, and that traditional medicine can’t be dismissed just because it isn’t supported by this “Western worldview”. I’d strongly take issue with these on two fronts. First, to suggest that the scientific method is the exclusive property of the West is to completely erase the numerous scientific contributions made throughout history by those outside of the West. The scientific method is no more a “Western” way of knowing than algebra is an Arabic way of doing math. These are both valid methods regardless of context. Second, science is not only universal, it’s universally true. As the adage goes, alternative medicine has either not been proved to work or been proved not to work.
I by no means want to be insensitive here. The choice Makayla Sault and her parents had to make is one I wouldn’t wish upon my worst enemy. And I certainly don’t blame them for what they chose. Frankly, there is no right answer to the question of whether it’s better to submit to immense short-term suffering for a chance at longer life or to try to live out the time one has left in as much comfort and dignity as possible, and these are decisions that ought to be left up to individuals. However, if they’re being made on the basis of faulty information about the efficacy of alternative medicine, as I’m worried they may have been in this case, this is where science and the expertise of medical professionals needs to be relied upon. When lives are on the line, the stakes are too high to pretend that every approach to medicine is equally effective.