British Columbia·UNBROKEN

Indigenous birth keepers break cycle, keep families together

This is the third instalment of a three-part series looking into the over-representation of Indigenous children and babies in care in British Columbia.

Only program of its kind in an urban setting

Elisa Hazenberg was in foster care as a child and says she is doing everything to keep her new family together. (Angela Sterritt/CBC)

Elisa Hazenberg's baby boy, now 9 months old, is huge for his age; thriving and a source of pride for Hazenberg.

The Dene woman originally from Fort Simpson, N.W.T., was in foster care much of her life.

But now, living in Surrey, B.C., Hazenberg, 24, is determined to break the cycle of fractured families which has plagued so many Indigenous people. She wants to make sure her baby never goes into foster care.

"I had a really rough introduction to the world," she said. "Now I'm just working towards a happy ending."

A safe space

Hazenberg has tapped into an innovative program aimed at keeping Indigenous families together.

It's called the Indigenous Birth Keepers group.

Hazenberg first attended the group when she was five months pregnant. Doulas and elders helped her chart a birth plan and provided emotional, physical and spiritual support as she prepared to be a mother.

Corina Bye, left, program co-ordinator and doula at the Indigenous Birth Keeper group with Dene mother Elisa Hazenberg, after she gave birth to a baby boy. (Courtesy Corina Bye)

The group — itself in its infancy — runs out of the Fraser Region Aboriginal Friendship Centre in Surrey, B.C. Funded by the Ministry of Children and Family Development, it started in 2017. 

"It's about building trusting relationships and coming here to a safe place that keeps people returning," said the group's co-ordinator, Corina Bye.

Doulas, sometimes called "birth coaches" are unlicensed caregivers who give spiritual and emotional support to expecting mothers during pregnancy, birth and in the post-natal period. 

Reviving a tradition 

Traditionally, doulas played a strong role in Indigenous births and today are making a comeback. 

Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, the former B.C. representative for children and youth applauded the doulas' re-emergence in Indigenous family life.

"I'm very excited about the role that [doulas] will play in child welfare because this is a very significant opportunity to intervene positively and supportively with women," said Turpel-Lafond, now head of UBC's Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre.

Healing families

Besides being part of Bye's group, parents like Hazenberg can connect with several post-natal, child care and parenting programs at the Friendship Centre.

It's a model that child welfare advocates call wrapping around a family.

By providing overlapping services, it is a modern day attempt to replicate how an extended family and community "wrapped around" a child in the pre-colonial period —  and in the days before residential schools began fracturing families.

In addition to doulas, Hazenberg  receives support — cultural, emotional and spiritual — from elders at the Friendship Centre.

Dozens of elders are paired with parents at the Friendship Centre, providing guidance, support and cultural education in eight-week stints.

Indigenous Birth Keepers co-ordinator Corina Bye with elder Verl Ferguson. Elders are a strong part of the program, which helps parents. (Angela Sterritt/CBC)

Until recently, Rosie White Elk was one of them. For her, culture is paramount, especially when it comes to healing from the scars left by residential schools and the Sixties Scoop. The "scoop" as it is sometimes called, is a term to describe the widespread adoption of Indigenous children out of their communities between 1951 and 1991.

Many were placed in non-Indigenous families.

"There is still a lot of anger and resentment out there," White said.

Seeing parents heal and speak up for themselves is empowering,  say both White and Bye.

'Cutting edge'

Bye says of the 45 births that have taken place so far, eight were via caesarean section, a rate of about 18 per cent.  The provincial average is 35 per cent.

Bye says a positive birth experience puts mothers on a good footing, where they "don't have to deal with trauma as a first experience" in becoming a parent.

The Birth Keepers program has caught the attention of two local university researchers, who are about to gather and document the experiences of participants.

Political scientist Fiona MacDonald of the University of the Fraser Valley says although the research is just getting underway, Indigenous doula programs are the way of the future.

"It is a cutting edge, exciting program," MacDonald said.

The program isn't the only one of its kind in B.C. — there is one on Seabird Island First Nation near Agassiz —  but it's the only one serving an urban Indigenous population in the province.

For Hazenberg, participating in the program has been the start of an awakening. She says she is incredibly grateful for the doula group.

"It's all just beginning," she said, smiling.

This story is the third part of a CBC Vancouver series examining the over-representation of Indigenous children in government care in British Columbia.