Indigenous doulas to give spiritual, traditional support throughout province

Doulas give mothers emotional and spiritual support through pregnancy, birth and postpartum experiences. Now, thanks to a Manitoban initiative, they'll also give indigenous mothers traditional support.

Winnipeg woman wants to 'return birth to communities' with new training program this summer

Melissa Brown (right from centre) with doulas from Mewinzha Odaadiziike Wiigaming, Fort Frances and members of the Manitoba Indigenous Doula Initiative. The first training sessions will be in late spring or early summer. (Supplied by Melissa Brown)

Doulas give mothers emotional and spiritual support through pregnancy, birth and postpartum experiences. Now, thanks to a Manitoban initiative, they'll also give indigenous mothers traditional support.

The Manitoba Indigenous Doula Initiative will help pregnant indigenous women connect with traditional beliefs and ceremonies.They'll go through regular doula training, but will also be able to give mothers traditional ceremonies, smudges and offer spiritual support.

Melissa Brown is the project leader of the initiative and is a registered midwife and doula. While working at Mount Carmel Clinic in Winnipeg's North End, she said she's seen women have better pregnancies after integrating cultural traditions. 

"What we've found is women want to connect with that knowledge that we had prior to colonization," she said.

"We had women's helpers, we had midwives and what's unique about this program — because there are some other really great programs in Winnipeg — is this is designed by indigenous women for indigenous women. We have that knowledge of different ceremonies and beliefs."

Supporting the bond between baby and mom

One of those is called a placenta ceremony, which focuses on and strengthens the bond between a mother and her new child.

"It's the idea that the community is coming together and making a promise that they're going to help that mom and that baby," Brown said.

"[They'll] do what they can to support that bond through that journey, through motherhood."

That community bond isn't strong in remote communities, said Brown. Mothers leave their homes 36 weeks into pregnancy and come to larger cities like Winnipeg to give birth.

"That means she's away from her family, she's away from any support, she's away from her children," said Brown.

"So, it's a very stressful time."

The initiative will support local women, but also those who are brought to Winnipeg to give birth. Because many of the women have never been to a larger city before, the doula would help her navigate community resources and — if she wants — give her traditional indigenous support. 

'Birth has been taken away from the community'

Organizations across the province have shown interest in the initiative, and Brown said the first round of training should start in late spring or early summer. Ultimately, Brown said she wants to see mothers stay in their communities to give birth, especially in places where suicide rates are high.

"Birth has been taken away from the community," she said.

"It used to be a community event, and now most families, when they get together as a community, it's usually for death. In addition to birth comes all of these different ceremonies that we used to have prior to colonization that used to bring the community together and focus on hope and love."

The new doulas will help local women and those from remote communities through pregnancy once they're fully trained. This isn't a solution to women having to leave the community to give birth, Brown said, but a way to make them more comfortable.

"We've lost a huge, significant part of our lives in those ceremonies. To return birth to community, I just hope I can see that at one point in my life because to me, that'll change generations."