Inuit midwives keep pregnant women closer to home and family

Thirty years after Inuit women began giving birth in their communities again, midwives say the traditions and local knowledge surrounding childbirth is stronger than ever.

Before midwives, pregnant women in the north were flown south or to Ontario to give birth

Apprentice midwife Vilisie Tayarak sits left of certified midwives Jennie Stonier and Saira Kakayuk. The three help most women in Salluit, Que., deliver their babies. (Marika Wheeler/CBC)

Thirty years after Inuit women began giving birth in their communities once again, midwives say the traditions and local knowledge surrounding childbirth are being revived.

For generations, women in Quebec's north were forced by the province to leave their home and families to give birth in one of two places: southern Quebec or Moose Factory, in northern Ontario. 

These women would sometimes be gone for weeks at a time.

In Salluit, Que., located at the northern tip of the province, that changed in 2004 when a maternity centre run by midwives was set up in a rural hospital in the community.

Their maternity centre sits atop a hill overlooking the colourful and windswept village. A string of yellow Christmas lights border the window and act as a beacon, letting all who live there know when a new member of the community has arrived.

"We turn them on when everything is ready and people come, they bring soup and come to shake the baby's hand," one of the midwives, Jennie Stonier, said.

Salluit is Quebec's second most northern community. (Marika Wheeler/CBC)

Reclaiming traditions

Most of the women who work at the maternity centre are Inuit, and births are peppered with traditional cultural practices.

"There is always a family member here and sometimes a lot of people," said Inuk midwife Saira Kakayuk. 

"It's usually a family member who cuts the cord."

The person who cuts a baby's umbilical cord is called an arnaqutik and fulfils a role akin to a godparent in Christian traditions.

Kakayuk says attending family members will also speak to the baby, telling him or her what they will become, such as a great hunter or a caregiver.

"And it's usually true," she says with a smile.

Searching for midwives

In the 1980s, Jennie Stonier was working as a midwife in the south when she received a letter from the head of health care services asking for help setting up midwife services in the community of Puvirnituq.

"The last line of the letter said, 'If you think you are going to come here and tell us what to do, stay home,'" Stonier said. 

She decided to try it for a year.

"That was 31 years ago," Stonier laughs.

After two generations of babies born in the south or Moose Factory, the first maternity centre in the north was created in 1986 in Puvirnituq, another Inuit community near the mouth of the Hudson Bay.

In the 1990s, a second was built in Inukjuak, about 150 kilometres south of the first.

In 2004, Stonier helped found Nunavik's third centre in Salluit and continued training Inuit women to become midwives.

First Salluit midwife

Saira Kakayuk always wanted to work in health care. Now, thanks to 10 years of training, she is Salluit's first certified midwife.

"I was trying to go for nursing training in Montreal, but I couldn't be away from my parents for a long period of time," Kakayuk said.

Years later, when the opportunity to become a midwife without having to leave her community presented itself, she applied.

"I'm very proud it's here and that I'm [part of it]," she said of the maternity centre.

Five other women are currently apprentices, while two others have completed their apprenticeships but are not yet certified. 

Apprentice Elisapie Padlayat says midwifery 'chose her.' (Marika Wheeler/CBC)

'It comforts me'

Apprentice midwife Elisapie Padlayat says midwifery "chose her."

She began the program in 2014 and is now both studying in it and benefiting from it as an expectant mother — another baby is due in April.

She says she's grateful she won't have to travel to give birth since she has no family in Montreal or Puvirnituq.

"I would be very upset [if I couldn't give birth in Salluit] because I wouldn't have anyone around me to help me when I go into labour," Padlayat said.

"I need a lot of help. It comforts me."

Giving birth in the north

Pregnancies that are considered "at risk" continue to be transferred to the south. The maternity centre isn't equipped to perform C-sections or forceps-assisted deliveries. 

According to the Innulitsivik Health Centre, which manages facilities in seven Nunavik communities, including Salluit, more than 92 percent of births are delivered by midwives in communities. 

Stonier said since the maternity's creation in 2004 there have been no deaths of mothers or babies during births.


Marika Wheeler

CBC Quebec's travelling journalist

Based in Quebec City, Marika travels across the province telling the stories of people who live and work in la belle province for CBC Radio One and