'It really works': Alberta maternity group calls for midwives in Indigenous and rural communities

Picture a woman days away from pregnancy leaving her small community marooned away from her family and friends to give birth in a hospital in a big city where she barely knows anyone.

'The practice of traditional midwifery is something that was taken away from traditional midwives,' says doula

An expecting mother is examined by a midwife during a home visit in Free Union, Va. (Andrew Shurtleff/AP)

Picture a woman days away from childbirth, leaving her small community and being marooned away from her family and friends in order to give birth in a hospital in a big city.

Danielle Voyageur, a doula, meets Indigenous pregnant women just like this regularly in Edmonton.

"(They're) isolated from family and friends and the support system she would have had in her own community," Voyageur said. "I want to change this."

Voyageur, who lives in Edmonton, joined 14 female health–care providers in Fort McMurray on Wednesday to discuss best practices and new approaches to enhance midwifery for families in rural and Indigenous communities around Alberta.

Reclaiming Indigenous midwives

What's a midwife? What's a doula?

Midwives in Alberta are registered through a provincial association to offer primary medical care to moms and their newborns through pregnancy, birth and 6 weeks afterwards.

Doulas offer non-medical coaching and support to moms during and after pregnancy.

Evelyn George, a midwife and the community program lead for the National Aboriginal Council of Midwives, said her organization's vision is to "bring birth back" to Indigenous communities.

The council not only wants to bring midwives to Indigenous communities, but to also empower First Nation, Métis and Inuit to join the profession.

Indigenous midwifery was practiced in Indigenous communities, George said, but since the introduction of colonial medicine, the role of Indigenous midwives has been undercut.

Evelyn George, a midwife and the community programs lead for the National Aboriginal Council of Midwives. (David Thurton)

"I think that we have a lot to reclaim. I think the history of birth is different for Indigenous people," George said. "There is (now) dislocation at birth."

"The practice of traditional midwifery is something that was taken away from traditional midwives and taken away from grandmothers." 

Experts at Wednesday's workshop said they hope to bring science–based midwifery with traditional Indigenous practices back to communities.

Elders from Voyageur's Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation in Fort Chipewyan tell her about a time when a baby would be sung into the world with traditional Dene drums in their community.

That's rare now, she said.

Voyageur, whose father is a residential school survivor and herself was taken away from her parents and placed into care services, said bringing back Indigenous traditions alongside Western medicine in rural communities will reduce the number of children who end up in foster care.

That's because moms and fathers will be supported by their parents and elders and won't be estranged from the family in a big city.

Some new moms can't deal with the difficulty and stress of childbirth and the sudden changes that accompany it and slip into depression or addiction, she said.

Danielle Voyageur, a doula and member of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation wants midwifery to return to Indigenous communities. (David Thurton/ CBC)

Involving family and the community when a birth happens at home and in the weeks and months afterwards offers women the supports needed.

"It really works to strengthen the bonds between mother and child," she said.

Working with AHS

A representative from Alberta Health Services (AHS) attended the workshop Wednesday and organizers said they hope to build a better relationship with the health authority so that it understands the need for midwives in northern Alberta and in Indigenous communities.

In November 2017, the Wood Buffalo Woman and Baby Care Association blasted the health authority for under–serving northern Alberta.

The organization said it used Wednesday's workshop to continue advocating for midwifery supports in rural and Indigenous communities.

"When women are taken from their communities, it becomes a very isolating event," Kayla Lushman, co–chair of the association said. "Then you create more of an atmosphere where a traumatic experience is likely rather than an empowering experience."

Kayla Lushman, co chair of the Wood Buffalo Baby Care Network. (David Thurton)

In an email statement Wednesday, AHS said it will work with the Wood Buffalo Women and Baby Care Association to improve access to midwifery in northern Alberta, including Indigenous communities.

Alberta currently has 112 midwives paid by the health authority and three practice in the north zone. 

Follow David Thurton, CBC's Fort McMurray correspondent, on Facebook and Twitter, or email him at david.thurton@cbc.ca


David Thurton

Senior reporter, Parliamentary Correspondent

David Thurton is a senior reporter in CBC's Parliamentary Bureau. He covers daily politics in the nation’s capital and specializes in environment and energy policy. Born in Canada but raised in Trinidad and Tobago, he’s moved around more times than he can count. He’s worked for CBC in several provinces and territories, including Alberta and the Northwest Territories.