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Midwifery coming north to Attawapiskat

Thursday December 13, 2012
Midwifery coming north to Attawapiskat

In 1990, women of Attawapiskat helped to make a film calling for the return of midwifery services to the community. For decades, the children of Attawapiskat had been born in southern hospitals, and the women were tired of going south to give birth. They wanted control of the birthing process to remain in Attawapiskat.

Now, over two decades since the film was made, the vision of the women of Attawapiskat is finally coming true.

Attawapiskat will become the first remote community in Ontario with midwifery services when midwife Christine Roy opens her doors at the Attawapiskat health clinic later this month.

“It has been a long, long road with a lot of road blocks along the way,” Roy said. “But the community has always been very strong on this being something they wanted, so now we are just very excited.”

Ontario has midwives in most of its urban centers, including Thunder Bay, Timmins, Kenora and Sault St. Marie in the north. But until now, there have been no midwifery programs in the smaller communities of the north.

Attawapiskat will change that, by becoming one of only a very few remote First Nations operating midwifery programs in Canada.

Roy first went to Attawapiskat as a nurse in the 1980s. She said she immediately fell in love with the people, the land and culture. She also fell in love with her future husband, Laurence Rose, and although they moved away from the community after she was there for three and a half years, they both knew they would be going back someday.

In the years that followed she worked towards her goal of opening a midwifery clinic in Attawapiskat. She trained to become a midwife, worked in a variety of practices including remote communities in Nunavut, and most recently took a teaching job at Laurentian University so that, once her midwife clinic opened, she could help train women from Attawapiskat to become midwives.

Roy said the fact that Attawapiskat will be the first remote community with midwives in Ontario is not surprising. The women of Attawapiskat have been “notorious” for not wanting to go south to give birth, she said. And community consultations on the topic have made Attawapiskat’s desire for midwifery “loud and clear.”

The challenges in getting midwifery into Attawapiskat have been great, and Roy expects that the program’s growing pains will also be challenging. The first step is to get a second midwife in Attawapiskat, which has not yet happened because of a shortage of housing in the community. Roy is not permitted to birth babies unless there are two midwives in the community, so until housing can be found for a second midwife she will conduct pre-birthing and after birth care with women and families but still send them south to give birth.

And even once a second midwife moves to Attawapiskat, some women will still be sent south to birth, especially women with health complications that could impact the health of the mother or child.

Women with low-risk pregnancies will be given a choice whether to stay in the community to give birth or travel south to do so in a hospital.

But Roy emphasized that midwifery is not only about the moment of birth. Midwives do extensive pre-birthing care with women and their families, and then do regular follow-ups with mothers after their baby’s born to make sure the entire family is healthy.

“There is a high quality follow up,” Roy said. “We spend a lot of time with moms and babies and their family, all this work towards improving their health and the family’s health. Midwives have a deeper knowledge of health, not just physical, and we believe it takes a community to grow a child.”

Meanwhile Roy has already had discussions with friends in Attawapiskat about setting up other health programming to help women and babies live healthier. She said there has been talk of a “healthy” soup kitchen, cooking circles, walking groups and education programs in the school with teenagers.

“We want healthy moms and babies and families,” Roy said.

And once the midwifery program gets underway, she plans to help train any women from the community who are interested in pursuing a midwifery career.

“We encourage Cree women to enter midwifery services,” she said. “When you’re giving birth you want to speak Cree, to be cared for by your own people in a way that is culturally appropriate. We will be looking to hire some women to work with the midwives, to start coming to births, giving them an opportunity to do that.”

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