New Regent Park program provides holistic support for new Indigenous moms

A new program based on research by St. Michael's Hospital and an Indigenous group of midwives in Regent Park aims to reduced the number of Indigenous children who are removed from their families and end up in the children's aid system.

Baby Bundles Program aims to cut the number of Indigenous infants in children's aid system

Sara Wolfe, an Indigenous midwife at Seventh Generation Midwives, shares a laugh with Charleana Toney during a prenatal check-up in Regent Park. (Paul Borkwood/CBC)

Charleana Toney is happy to be getting a prenatal check-up from an Indigenous midwife who is not just concerned about her physical well-being and the health of her baby.

"What about cultural teachings — smudging or anything you would want to do?" the midwife asks her.

Toney, 31, wasn't allowed to have smudging, a traditional cleansing ceremony of burning sweetgrass, sage or other sacred herbs, the last time she gave birth in a hospital. 

But it's allowed at Seventh Generation Midwives in Regent Park, where she's now being examined.

"I like that it is [run by] Indigenous women and respects that I'm indigenous," Toney told CBC Toronto.

"So they actually know maybe if you're stressed out or something you need to cleanse, so then we'll smudge and I like those things," she said, adding that in a more clinical setting she would likely be given drugs for stress.

She's just one of the moms-to-be in the Baby Bundles Program, which along with traditional counselling and healing, provides access to mental health and social service agencies, such as housing support.

Charleana Toney, 31, is Anishnawbe and Mi'kmaq, but growing up she was ashamed of her Indigenous background. Now she has proudly reclaimed it and is hoping to teach her children what she's learned. (Paul Borkwood/CBC)

After a three-year research project, St. Michael's Hospital and the Seventh Generation Midwives has launched the new program to address infant mortality and child apprehension rates that are higher Indigenous communities across Canada than in the general population.  

Founders of the project hope a holistic system that supports the whole family will mean fewer Indigenous children will end up being taken away by children's aid agencies.

Statistics Canada suggests while they make up less than eight percent of the population under the age of 14, about 52 per cent of children in care in Canada are Indigenous.

The federal government recently introduced Indigenous child welfare legislation to avoid repeating the 60s scoop, when Indigenous children were routinely removed from their families and communities to be sent to foster homes or adopted.

Sara Wolfe, an Indigenous midwife at Seventh Generation Midwives, says it seems to her that the rules are different for Indigenous families and that tends to lead to a greater number of Indigenous children in the care of children's aid societies. (Paul Borkwood/CBC)

Sara Wolfe, an Indigenous midwife at Seventh Generation Midwives, says the Baby Bundles Program represents a shift away from a system that critics say make it much more likely that Indigenous children will be taken away from their families.

"It almost seemed like the rules were different for Indigenous families than they were for non-Indigenous families," Wolfe said.

"That creates a system where we're calling child protection services way more often, they're getting involved in people's lives way more often and babies are getting apprehended way more often for reasons that are very different than they would be for non-indigenous families."

While it's open to all, the Seventh Generation Midwives Centre has Indigenous staff and leadership and it's designed to be a welcoming, spiritual and respectful place. It even has a birthing centre built with Indigenous traditions in mind.

Dr. Patricia O'Campo, the interim vice president of research at St. Michael’s Hospital, says a three-year research program led to the Baby Bundles Program. (Paul Borkwood/CBC)

Dr. Patricia O'Campo, the interim vice president of research at St. Michael's Hospital, says a holistic approach to caring for mother and child has made a huge difference in the lives of Indigenous kids in other countries where it's been tried.

"In fact, the model that we are trying to implement here is based on a program in Australia, in Brisbane, where about 10 years ago they were facing a similar problem of a high number of infant apprehensions among Indigenous families," she said.

"And so these families are being very well-supported now and they now have zero apprehensions and we're hoping to replicate that here."

Hopefully that early intervention will mean a healthier start for Charleana Toney and her baby. 

Toney says instead of being ashamed of her Indigenous background, she's now reclaiming it.

"I'm actually proud to be Anishnawbe. Growing up I was not. As a teenager, I would tell people I was Spanish."


Philip Lee-Shanok

Senior Reporter, CBC National News

From small town Ontario to Washington D.C., Philip has covered stories big and small. An award-winning reporter with three decades of experience in Ontario and Alberta, he's now a Senior Reporter for the National Network based in Toronto. His stories are on CBC Radio's World Report, World This Hour, World at Six and The World This Weekend as well as CBC TV's The National and CBC News Online. Follow him on Twitter @CBCPLS.