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Honoring Indigenous midwives on May 5

03/05/2022

Photo: Members of the Indigenous Women and Family Health team l to r: Nicole Cardinal, Danette Jubinville, Miranda Kelly (director), Keisha Charnley (midwife), Tia Felix (midwife) and Olivia Louie.

Indigenous midwives are working to restore Indigenous birthing practices and contributing to health-related calls to action from Reclaiming Power and Place: The Final Report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. It's fitting that both International Day of the Midwife and National Day of Awareness for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls take place on the same day (May 5). Midwives Keisha Charnley from Katzie First Nation and Tia Felix from Splatsín First Nation are new members of Vancouver Coastal Health's (VCH) Indigenous Health team. Their roles are multifaceted. When they're not actively catching babies and providing exceptional care they are strategically identifying and fixing gaps in the perinatal health care system.

"I appreciate the dynamic nature of our roles," says Keisha. “One day, we're dreaming up a system that is safe and relevant for Indigenous families and the next we are heading to a hospital or a patient's home for a delivery. We get to enact some of the system-wide changes we're dreaming of in real time."

Indigenous midwifery has been practiced on these lands since time immemorial. Aunties, grannies and medicine people – skilled and knowledgeable in perinatal health and traditional medicines – have always been at the frontlines of providing care, protection and support to Indigenous babies and families. Colonization disrupted Indigenous birth work through policies that outlawed cultural practices, required births to be attended by doctors and nurses, and required pregnant people to leave their communities to birth in hospitals located far from home.

“For Indigenous midwives throughout history, our focus wasn't just labour, birth and post-partum care, it was much more," says Tia. “Historically, directly impacting Indigenous peoples in Canada, midwives were one of the first to be limited in what they can provide. First, Indigenous midwives couldn't practice without a license. Then the profession became male-dominated creating a power shift rooted in patriarchy. For Indigenous women, this took away relational and familiar care and also removed our genealogy as midwives. Who else kept track of our family trees but midwives?"

Today, Indigenous birth work is a form of resurgence. Not only are Indigenous midwives providing culturally safe care and filling gaps in primary health care services, they are also rebuilding capacity in Indigenous communities to bring birth closer to home and to reclaim the traditional roles of midwives.

"We're moving though an exciting yet awkward time of change and transformation as we enact Indigenous cultural safety approaches to Western medicine," says Keisha. “For instance, instead of having a half hour appointment focussing on the mother's physical health, we're having a six hour appointment, harvesting medicines on the land and meeting the family for relationship building that will improve their health and wellbeing during birth. This slow approach to the work isn't sustainable in the current system though and leads to capacity issues."

"Indigenous midwives are not only involved in the pregnancy, birth and post partum period, they are also involved in the baby's life, sometimes even as intimately as having their name become part of the baby's name, forever connecting the two," adds Tia. “Parenting knowledge and skills were disrupted due to colonization and now, as a community, we're relearning those skills. Midwives are not just there for the birthing but we are aunties, counsellors, teachers and health care professionals for the family and community."

Despite the many challenges of working within two systems, there is a lot of joy in this work.

“Midwifery is a way of echoing the love of our ancestors and feeling close to them," says Keisha. “Birth stories are often talked about as setting the tone for someone's life. It's an honour to create a dignified entry into life and setting babies up for success in a dignified entry into their life. It is truly a joyful thing to be part of their birth story."

These two new roles for VCH are building capacity for Indigenous midwives to be leaders and systems change agents. The Indigenous Health team is creating new structures within our current system for Indigenous midwives to model cultural safety in the perinatal health care settings to improve care for Indigenous birthers and their families. We lift our hands to our two new team members and Indigenous midwives everywhere for doing this work and leading this change.


Call to Action 7.4 from Reclaiming Power and Place: The Final Report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls:

We call upon all governments and health service providers to provide necessary resources, including funding, to support the revitalization of Indigenous health, wellness, and child and Elder care practices. For healing, this includes teachings that are land-based and about harvesting and the use of Indigenous medicines for both ceremony and health issues. This may also include: matriarchal teachings on midwifery and postnatal care for both woman and child; early childhood health care; palliative care; Elder care and care homes to keep Elders in their home communities as valued Knowledge Keepers; and other measures. Specific programs may include but are not limited to correctional facilities, healing centres, hospitals, and rehabilitation centres.

SOURCE: Honoring Indigenous midwives on May 5 ( )
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