‘Cancer doesn’t judge race or creed,’ says chief, who shaved his head for others battling cancer
Two months ago, Chief Shane Gottfriedson experienced the devastating loss of his mother to pancreatic cancer. Now he is raising awareness about high cancer rates among First Nations people by shaving his head.
The B.C. regional chief is also challenging other chiefs to do the same, and to date 10 have stepped up to the call.
“My mom got diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and everything just happened so fast,” said Gottfriedson, whose mom died within 30 days of the diagnosis.”It’s probably one of the deadliest forms of cancer that you can get.”
“Shaving my head and going bald was to show support for other people out there that they’re not alone and that the impacts of the deadly disease of cancer affects all of us,” said Gottfriedson.
- First Nations people at greater risk of developing cancer: report
- High lung, cervical cancer rates in Indigenous people point to need for prevention
While national data on cancer rates among Indigenous people doesn’t exist, regional data shows a dramatic increase in cancer incidents, with rates increasing faster than the general Canadian population.
Gottfriedson said he hopes the challenge will serve as a reminder that First Nations people must get regular health check-ups. But with limited access to health services in some remote communities, researchers say there is not enough preventable health measures available to Indigenous people.
“At the end of the day, we have to continue to be strong, and support one another,” said Gottfriedson.
Gottfriedson, from Tk’emlups Indian Band, will keep his head bald until after the Assembly of First Nations general meeting in July, where he plans to encourage other chiefs to also shave their heads.
‘Cancer doesn’t judge race or creed’
Manitoba regional Chief Kevin Hart, from Nischawayasihk Cree Nation, Man., participated in the challenge, and shared a video on Facebook of his head being shaved.
“I’m doing this in honour of my mother, who is currently fighting cancer … I’ve [also] lost two family members before this,” said Hart in the video.
“My sister Ellie lost her battle to cancer a while back, and my late sister Lyna they found out afterwards that she was fighting cancer when she passed away.”
“For my mom this would be the third time she’s fought cancer, she fought it twice and it went into remission,” Hart said in an interview.
“And this time they informed her … that it’s terminal and nothing can be done, and it’s just a matter of time keeping her comfortable.”
Hart’s mother is a residential school survivor, and has dedicated her life to working with Indigenous youth and adults in the CFS system and addiction services. She is also an elder in residence at the University of Winnipeg.
While trying to be there for her as much as possible, Hart says his mother hasn’t allowed him to take time off of his busy position as regional chief.
“I cancelled one trip one time when they took my mom to the hospital, and I was telling her I was going to take some time off and spend it with her,” said Hart.
“But she said, ‘no I’m here don’t worry about me, you have an important job to do out there for the people… the people need you.'”
Aside from showing support for cancer patients by shaving his hair, Hart says the best way one can support a family member going through treatment is to be there for them.
“The most you can do is try to spend as much time as you can with your loved ones — and just know that all of us are not alone, cancer doesn’t judge race or creed,” said Hart.
Cultural importance of hair
Gottfriedson’s challenge has larger implications, considering the importance of hair for First Nations people. For some men, they grow their hair long because it connects them to the creator, the earth and their ancestors.
Hart grew up learning these teachings, and he used to have long hair, but cut it when his father died.
“In our traditions when we lose our loved ones, we cut our hair,” said Hart.
“It’s very courageous when the men actually step up and put their own long hair aside, and give it for a good cause.” – Shane Gottfriedson, B.C. Regional Chief
“[When] my father was killed in a car accident, and with the traditions and teaching I received growing up, it was the right thing for me to do.”
Gottfriedson said one participant, Don Bain, the executive director of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs, had long hair before shaving it all off, and ended up donating his hair to a charity.
“It’s very courageous when the men actually step up and put their own long hair aside, and give it for a good cause, that’s for sure,” said Gottfriedson.