Thunder Bay·Updated

Birth alerts still happening at Thunder Bay hospital despite Ontario halt to them, First Nations leaders say

Ontario stopped allowing birth alerts — child welfare agencies notifying a hospital of possible safety concerns involving a parent before a birth — in late 2020, but First Nations leaders say they're still happening at Thunder Bay's hospital. The hospital denies the practice is ongoing.

Ontario ordered child welfare agencies to stop practice by October 2020, hospital denies they're happening

First Nations leaders say birth alerts, a controversial practice that Ontario ordered child welfare agencies to halt in 2020, are still happening at the Thunder Bay Regional Health Sciences Centre. (Thunder Bay Regional Health Sciences Centre)

Ontario stopped allowing the practice of birth alerts — child welfare agencies notifying a hospital when they believe a newborn may be in need of protection — in late 2020, but First Nations leaders say it's still happening at Thunder Bay's hospital.

The province ordered an end to birth alerts, which have long been reported to disproportionately affect Indigenous families, in response to a call to action from the 2019 inquiry into murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls (MMIWG). The parent isn't notified of these alerts, which could result in the agency immediately taking the baby away from the parent after the birth.

But Matawa First Nation chiefs say their members have told them child welfare agencies are still making birth alert arrangements with staff at Thunder Bay Regional Health Sciences Centre. Matawa members must travel to Thunder Bay to give birth because health stations in their communities don't provide non-emergency maternity care.

"It is distressing to the Matawa Chiefs Council that — after two years of their being mandated by the Ontario government to be discontinued — we are still hearing that birth alerts are still taking place in Thunder Bay and in municipalities where Matawa women are birthing their babies," Webequie First Nation Chief Cornelius Wabasse says in a release.

In the Ontario Legislature on Wednesday, Kiiwetinoong NDP MPP Sol Mamakwa, who represents Matawa communities, said birth alerts are a "gross violation of the rights of the child, the mother and the Indigenous community as a whole," and called the practice "traumatic to our nations."

The Thunder Bay Regional Health Sciences Centre sent a statement to CBC News denying the practice is occurring. 

"Thunder Bay Regional Health Sciences Centre does not participate in the practice of birth alerts and is committed to keeping it that way," the statement reads. The hospital declined a CBC News request for an interview. 

Dilico Anishinabek Family Care issued a statement on Sunday, saying it does not participate in birth alerts and is strongly opposed to the practice.

CBC News has been unable to independently verify the allegations. 

Call for look into services for Indigenous people 

Cora McGuire-Cyrette, executive director of the Ontario Native Women's Association, isn't surprised to hear the allegations, calling them "the tip of the iceberg" of anti-Indigenous systemic racism at Thunder Bay's hospital.

"We're addressing deep-rooted, systemic racist views within the system, even the practice of ending birth alerts and direction and political will. We knew that wasn't going to happen overnight," she said.

"We need to look at the health-care system, what needs to happen next. We've provided recommendations, as has the Truth and Reconciliation [Commission] calls to action. There are specific actions for the health-care system 18 to 31, so I'd like to know what the Thunder Bay regional hospital has done toward any of those actions." 

McGuire-Cyrette is calling for health providers to begin open conversations about the quality of services that Indigenous patients are receiving.

Matawa pushed for change before Ontario directive

Birth alerts have been stopped in much of Canada, but some controversy remains.

Long before Ontario's halt to birth alerts took effect, one Matawa community was advocating to ensure newborns remained with their expectant mothers.

In 2014, Judy Desmoulin, a councillor at the time, was contacted by a member who was living in Long Lake #58 First Nation. The woman was seven months pregnant when she received a call from the family who had raised her in foster care. She thought they were calling to just catch up, but was told child services had asked that family to raise her baby after the birth.

"Especially with this first case, I saw absolutely no reason why somebody should remove this child from this family," Desmoulin said, adding the woman had been enrolled in smoking cessation and family planning programs at the time.

Desmoulin thought she and the agency had confirmed the support plan, but when the mother went into labour, she drove 300 kilometres to Thunder Bay to be there, just in case. She remembers law enforcement, security and social workers were all waiting to take the baby.

She told them that under the Child Welfare Act, the community is entitled to a say in a child's well-being.

"And I said, 'OK, let's get dressed. Let's get this baby in his stroller and let's go,'" Desmoulins recalled. "So we did that and nobody arrested us. Nobody stopped us, and we left the hospital.

"So that told me that, yes, that piece of the law did hold some weight. And we've never stopped since."

The First Nation's leadership went on to ensure an advocate was present at the hospital for every mother in labour thereafter, and over the next eight years, Desmoulin said, none of the 100 babies born to Long Lake #58 members have been seized at birth.

When she was elected chief, Desmoulin recommended to the other eight Matawa chiefs that they should provide their members with the same advocacy. That led to the Awashishewiigiihiwaywiin (The Social Services Framework) program.

Program aims to help keep families together

Since 2019, the program has aimed to build supports that help keep families together. It has connected 61 families with medical practitioners, completed 71 housing applications, and referred 63 families to mental health agencies, while helping 28 get addictions services. It also provided 24 families with traditional supports like elders and ceremonies.

For Desmoulin, the work involves attempting to end a "direct link" between residential schools, the Sixties Scoop and the over-representation of Indigenous children in care.

"Way back when, there are statements written to 'take the Indian out of the child.' This is another modern form of how government seems to be perpetuating this plan," Desmoulin says.

"The Canadian government needs to formally lift that thinking of 'taking the Indian out of the child.' That's not going to happen."

Clarifications

  • A previous version of this story stated the Thunder Bay Regional Health Sciences Centre did not respond to a request for comment. The hospital emailed a statement, but due to a technical issue, it did not reach CBC News before publishing. This story has since been updated to include the hospital's response.
    Apr 08, 2022 2:44 PM ET

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