Ottawa vigil calls for Delilah Saunders to be put on liver transplant list

Family and friends of Delilah Saunders gathered at Ottawa's Human Rights Monument to call for the Inuk activist to be added to Ontario's transplant waiting list despite the fact she doesn't meet the province's sobriety benchmark.

Ralliers join Amnesty International in calling Ontario's 'six-month sobriety' rule discriminatory

Delilah Saunders, seen here speaking at an inquiry into murdered and missing women, is suffering from acute liver failure. Friends says she could die without a transplant. (CBC)

About 30 people gathered on a freezing, snowy night at the Human Rights Monument in downtown Ottawa to support Delilah Saunders and join the call for the Inuk activist to be added to Ontario's organ transplant wait list.

The 26-year-old is currently in critical condition due to acute liver failure and was hospitalized in Ottawa a week ago. She's since been airlifted to Toronto.

Saunders has been told she does not meet sobriety criteria set by the Trillium Gift of Life Network, the Ontario agency that manages organ transplants. But friends and family say she has been sober for about three months, half the sobriety benchmark required by the agency.

Friday night's vigil included close friends, family and strangers who knew about Saunders' work as an advocate for Indigenous land rights in Labrador and her voice at the Inquiry for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.

Her cousin, performing artist Ma Myriah Peace, spoke to the crowd.

"I am here with my heart broken open, holding on to positive prayers for Delilah. She's made such a difference nationwide, coast-to-coast-to-coast," Peace said. "She's so strong and so beautiful. We've got you, Delilah!"

Ma Myriah Peace, a cousin of Delilah Saunders, spoke at the vigil for Saunders in Ottawa on Friday night. (Matthew Kupfer/CBC)

Kelly Morrissey took Saunders to the hospital and stayed with her when she had early tests.

"Never at that moment, would I know that we would be here today. It's been so difficult but also so beautiful," she said, her voice straining.

Vigils in several cities

Saunders work as an activist has inspired similar rallies in support of her in Toronto and St. John's Friday. 

"Public support is so important for Delilah's cause at this point," Morrissey said. "I firmly believe that it is through these actions that we're seeing changes against these oppressive policies and allowing Delilah to get the treatment that she really needs."

Morrissey said she was certain that if their roles were reversed, Saunders would be fighting for more equitable access to organ transplants, regardless of a person's history of addiction. 

Kelly Morrissey, a close friend of Delilah Saunders who is from the same community, said vigils like the one held at the Ottawa Human Rights Monument Friday night are important for making sure Saunders gets care. (Matthew Kupfer/CBC News)

Friends point out that Saunders' liver failure was triggered by acetaminophen, not alcohol, and that there is no medical basis for the six month sobriety requirement. 

Morrissey also said they want Saunders to be considered for a possible live liver transplant and several people have volunteered to donate.

Sobriety requirement 'discriminatory'

The vigil heard that the policy of requiring six-months of sobriety before being put on the wait list for a liver transplant discriminates disproportionately against Indigenous people, who suffer from addiction issues due to intergenerational traumas like residential schools.

But the call was that no person should be denied access to a transplant due to addiction issues.

Amnesty International, which recognized Saunders for activism earlier this year, has joined the call for Ontario to change its policies around organ transplants.

Alex Neve, secretary general of Amnesty International Canada, said the issue amounts to a violation of human rights. 

"There is a discriminatory policy used to decide who will or will not get access to life-saving organ transplants. And, for people who have struggled with alcoholism in the past, that is unlawful discrimination," Neve said. "And that is what Delilah is being punished for."

About 30 people attended a vigil in freezing temperatures at the Ottawa Human Rights Monument to support Delilah Saunders and protest Ontario's restrictions on organ transplant recipients. (Matthew Kupfer/CB)

There are similar rules around alcohol use in other jurisdictions across North America. However, the Ontario rules have already been challenged in court.

In an emailed statement to CBC News, Trillium Gift of Life Network said the criteria were based on "jurisdictional reviews and advice from expert working groups" with whom they are currently finalizing a three-year pilot program "to determine if there is an evidence-based basis to change the criteria."

Saunders' supporters are worried those changes won't happen quickly enough.

Laura Gagnon performed a song at the vigil for Delilah Saunders. She dedicated the song to Saunders and her cousin, who had recently died from liver failure. (Matthew Kupfer/CBC)

with files from CBC's Nic Meloney