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Aboriginal girl now receiving both chemo and traditional medicine

People support an aboriginal family’s decision not to subject their daughter to chemotherapy.

Glenn Lowson/The Globe and Mail

A cancer-stricken Ontario First Nations girl whose court case drew national attention last fall is now receiving a mix of aboriginal and conventional health care – including chemotherapy – after her leukemia returned in March and her mother agreed to a blended treatment plan.

The update on the health of the pre-teen, known as J.J., came during an unusual court proceeding in Brantford on Friday that brought together lawyers for the Ontario Attorney-General's Office and all the parties to the original case, including the Hamilton hospital that first turned to the courts to try to force the girl back into chemotherapy.

In order to avoid putting J.J. and her family through a legal appeal, all sides co-operated in asking Justice Gethin Edward to "clarify" his original controversial ruling guarding the family's constitutional right to choose indigenous healing over modern medicine, despite doctors' warnings that the girl would almost certainly die without chemotherapy.

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Justice Edward agreed to amend his original decision to make it clear that the interests of the child must be "paramount" in a case like that of 11-year-old J.J., whose identity is protected by a court order.

"Implicit in this decision is that recognition and implementation of the right to use traditional medicines must remain consistent with the principle that the best interests of the children remain paramount," the revised decision reads.

After endorsing the lawyers' joint submission, Justice Edward took the unconventional step of wading into the courtroom to shake hands with J.J., her mother, and the assembled lawyers, congratulating them on finding a resolution to the child's legal plight.

"There was some concern that somehow the traditional Ontario law test of how judges should look at things had placed the aboriginal right to traditional medicine as an absolute, rather than as factor to be seriously considered. That was never anybody's intention," Paul Williams, the lawyer for J.J. and her family, told reporters.

"So what [Justice] Edward did is he said, 'When you're looking at a child, the first thing you consider, the first thing everybody considers, is the child's best interest and the right to use traditional medicine is part of the child's best interest.' "

Last November, Justice Edward, who is a member of the same Six Nations band as J.J., ruled that the family's aboriginal rights trumped a Hamilton hospital's attempts to compel child-welfare authorities to intervene and send J.J. back for chemotherapy.

The ruling prompted calls for the Ontario government – which was not involved in the original case – to appeal the decision.

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Instead, the provincial Attorney-General's Office repeatedly asked for the deadline to appeal to be extended while lawyers from all sides worked behind the scenes to reach the compromise finalized Friday.

J.J.'s saga began in August of 2014, when she was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, a cancer that in her case had an excellent chance of being cured with conventional chemotherapy, according to doctors at McMaster Children's Hospital.

Initially, J.J.'s mother agreed to the treatment plan, but 10 days into a 32-day course of chemotherapy she halted her daughter's treatment and announced that she would take the child to Florida to be cared for at a holistic healing centre called the Hippocrates Health Institute.

J.J.'s case and that of another girl with a strikingly similar story put a spotlight on Hippocrates and what, exactly, the spa-like centre could offer to vulnerable cancer patients. Florida's Health Department charged the owners of the clinic with practising medicine without a licence, but it dropped those charges last month, citing a lack of evidence.

Mr. Williams said Friday that J.J. and her family no longer have any contact with the Florida healing centre.

The joint submission presented Friday said that after the original ruling, the girl's family and the Ontario government started working together to provide J.J. with indigenous and non-indigenous treatments.

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"The child's core health care team initially consisted of a doctor and a traditional Haudenosaunee health care provider. The health care team was further supplemented by [two] additional participants: a senior pediatric oncologist recommended by Ontario, and a Haudenosaunee chief, who is also a practitioner of traditional medicine, invited by the family," the submission reads.

"In March, 2015, J.J.'s cancer, which had gone into remission, returned. The family met and concluded that chemotherapy, along with traditional Haudenosaunee medicine, which J.J. had already been receiving, would be the best next step."

Mr. Williams declined to comment on J.J.'s prognosis, but she looked well as she watched the proceedings, sporting dangling gold earrings and a full head of dark hair cropped short above her ears.

The story of the other aboriginal girl who quit chemotherapy ended much more sadly.

The parents of Makayla Sault, who lived on a small Ontario reserve not far from the much larger Six Nations of the Grand River reserve where J.J. lives, also chose to stop chemotherapy when their daughter was diagnosed with leukemia.

Six Nations of the Grand River is near Brantford, a city of nearly 100,000 about 100 kilometres southwest of Toronto.

Makayla travelled to Hippocrates for alternative therapies and a plant-based diet, but died in January. Her parents said in a statement that she died of a stroke brought on by the chemotherapy she underwent before abandoning conventional treatment, something that oncologists have publicly disputed.

In Makayla's case, McMaster Children's Hospital asked the local child-welfare agency, Brant Family and Children's Services [BFCS], to intervene. The agency refused, saying Makayla's family was a loving and supportive one and the girl was not in need of protection. The hospital let the matter drop.

When the same scenario played out with J.J., hospital officials decided to take BFCS to court in a bid to force the girl back into chemotherapy, a move that eventually led to Friday's revised decision.

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Kelly Grant is a health reporter with The Globe and Mail. More

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