Striking a balance between Western and Indigenous medicine

When Roxann Whitebean was diagnosed with advanced breast cancer at age 30, one of her biggest fears going into chemotherapy was losing her hair.

It wasn’t an issue of vanity, but because hair holds cultural significance in her Mohawk culture.

“Hair is a symbol of strength and honour, and it’s our style of choice to have it very long,” said Whitebean, a filmmaker and mother of four from Kahnawake, Que. “It symbolizes someone who’s whole.”

“I grew up as a traditional woman within my community … and I always felt that if I were to ever get sick, that I would just undergo traditional medicine and not western,” said Whitebean.

“For years I went to the doctors and said I think there’s a problem, I found a lump in my breast, and they would tell me that I was too young,” said Whitebean.

Instead, Whitebean choose to strike a balance between western and traditional medicine.

“When I got diagnosed the cancer was so advanced… I decided that I was going to try the chemotherapy, and it was basically out of fear.”

Whitebean’s diagnosis came three days after wrapping her first short film, Legend of the Storm.

She decided to turn the camera on herself, becoming the subject of Thunder Blanket — a five-part documentary about her battle against the disease.

“I got diagnosed, and within two weeks we were already rolling,” said Whitebean.

“I wasn’t used to being in front of the camera … I was really emotional because everything was so new to me still, but I had a hard time getting out of my head.”

Balancing Two Worlds

Roxann and healer Bill Constant discuss her treatment plan.

Bill Constant, from Opaskwayak Cree Nation, became her traditional Indigenous healer. Whitebean said he encouraged her decision to combine the two approaches and to make sure her other doctors knew.

“If we’re able to work together with that doctor, I think that the person’s chance of recovery would be much greater.”, said Constant.

“When we were talking [Constant] said pray for a western doctor that’ll take care of you, because some of them are very gifted healers and they work for their gods too,” said Whitebean.

The western treatment that Whitebean received included chemotherapy, radiation and a double mastectomy.

Whitebean and Constant developed a plan, which included an intense healing sweat before Whitebean started chemotherapy. She stayed in contact with Constant through her chemotherapy, but the real traditional healing began once it ended.

And when the western treatment was done, she would “detox” and regain her strength with traditional remedies.

“What we did for Roxann was we had four sweats in four days. Before she went in we made medicine for her to drink, and this medicine is to go into this area where she’s sick, to clean her out from inside,” said Constant.

“We use that intense heat to go into the place where you’re sick. In fact western medicine has recently said that cancer doesn’t survive in extreme heat.”

Nurse fired after video shows Canadian hospital staff mocking Indigenous patient

A nurse at a Quebec hospital has been fired after a dying Indigenous woman streamed hospital staff mocking her.

The patient, Joyce Echaquan, recorded the footage Monday on Facebook Live while she was at Centre Hospitalier Régional de Lanaudière in Joliette for stomach pains.

In the video, reviewed by NBC News, Echaquan makes noises of extreme discomfort from her hospital bed. Hospital staff can be heard calling her “stupid as hell” in French while one nurse says Echaquan, a mother of seven, is “good at having sex, more than anything else.” Echaquan, 37, died later that day.

The local public health department said it “finds the comments heard in the video circulated on social media unacceptable” and “does not tolerate any such language on the part of its staff within the organization.”

“The investigation is underway, and a nurse has been fired,” the department said, according to NBC News.

The video sparked demonstrations outside the hospital. Quebec’s premier, François Legault, said Tuesday that a task force on racism would “take action” and issue recommendations.

“First, I want to offer my condolences to the family. Second, what happened is totally unacceptable,” he said, according to NBC News.

Perry Bellegarde, the national chief for the Assembly of First Nations, said the incident showed how little progress had been made since a government report last year indicating racism in public health services against Indigenous people.

“One year after the release of the Viens Commission Report, Joyce Echaquan, a young Atikamekv woman died while facing incredibly racist and insensitive taunts by Quebec health care staff,” he tweeted.

Canadian Senator Leo Housakos, who represents Quebec’s Wellington region, tweeted “the lack of human compassion and dignity shown to this mother, daughter, friend, must not be tolerated in our society.”

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outcry after video shows hospital staff taunting dying Indigenous woman

Photograph: Canadian Press/REX/Shutterstock

© Provided by The Guardian
Photograph: Canadian Press/REX/Shutterstock

A shocking video showing hospital staff in Canada taunting a dying Indigenous woman has left a community in mourning and renewed calls for the country to confront the realities of systemic racism.

Joyce Echaquan, a 37-year-old Atikamekw woman, arrived at a hospital in the Quebec city of Joliette on Monday, complaining of stomach pain.

The mother of seven had previously suffered similar issues and told staff she had a heart condition. Echaquan started livestreaming her experience on Facebook as her pain escalated, and staff at the hospital appeared indifferent to her pleas for help.

a group of people sitting on a bed: People attend a vigil in front of the hospital where Joyce Echaquan died in Joliette, Quebec, on 29 September.

© Photograph: Canadian Press/REX/Shutterstock
People attend a vigil in front of the hospital where Joyce Echaquan died in Joliette, Quebec, on 29 September.

In the footage, Echaquan is seen grimacing as nurses call her “stupid as hell”. “Are you done acting stupid? Are you done?” asked one nurse in French as Echaquan moaned in pain.

“You made some bad choices, my dear,” another nurse said. “What are your children going to think, seeing you like this?”

“She’s good at having sex, more than anything else,” the first nurse said.

Indigenous leaders say the video exposes the grim realities of systemic racism that have long gone ignored throughout the country.

“Discrimination against First Nations people remains prevalent in the health care system and this needs to stop,” the Assembly of First Nations national chief, Perry Bellegarde, said in a statement.

The Quebec premier, François Legault, condemned the actions of the staff, telling reporters at least one of the nurses had been fired.

But the premier rejected the notion that Echaquan’s death was representative of a broader problem of racism within Quebec, despite a public inquiry concluding the opposite.

“I really don’t think we have this kind of way of dealing with First Nations people in our hospitals in Quebec,” he said.

The province’s coroner office has announced an investigation into the circumstances surrounding Echaquan’s death. The local health board is also investigating.

‘‘We will not tolerate any remarks of that type from our personnel,” the board said in a statement.

Related: Violence against indigenous women is woven into Canada’s history | Jaskiran Dhillon and Siku Allooloo

Marc Miller, federal Indigenous services minister, extended his condolences to the community who were traumatized by the “gut-wrenching” video.

“This is the worst face of racism,” Miller told reporters. “This is someone who is at their most vulnerable. And they are dying, having heard racist words expressed towards them.”

Contrary to remarks by Legault, however, Miller said Echaquan’s death was reflective of broader barriers Indigenous peoples still face in Canada.

“This is not an isolated event,” said Miller, pointing to the case of a hospital in British Columbia, where staff allegedly bet on the blood alcohol content of incoming Indigenous patients.

For those who have experienced similar treatment to Echaquan’s, the video marked a jarring reminder of the inequities present within the country’s healthcare system.

“I’m not sure I can adequately explain how