In Ontario, alternatives for hospital birth are rising in prominence as women look back at traditional methods like home birth and midwifery rather than going to a hospital. First Nations women have been forced to leave their communities to give birth, which can cause both health and social risks for both mother and child.
This slow change has been furthered by the Six Nations Maternal and Child Care Centre in Ohsweken, Ontario. The Mohawk name for this centre is Tsi Non:We Ionnakeratstha, which translates to “The Place They Will Be Born.” The centre is run and occupied by Aboriginal midwives and staff who provide “a balance of traditional and contemporary midwifery services and programs.”
Midwifery was a very common practice for women in North America up until the 19th Century, when hospital births rose in popularity. For Indigenous women, this means leaving their families and communities during an incredibly important transitional period. The loss of local and culturally appropriate birthing practices has deeply affected the health of indigenous women and children. According to the National Aboriginal Council of Midwives in 2016, “infant deaths in aboriginal communities are at least twice the national average and Indigenous mothers are more likely to experience postnatal depression.”
For women who do want to use more traditional practices, midwifery may not even be available to them or paid for by the Canadian province in which they live. Lack of supportive legislation has made it more difficult for midwives to practice. In Ontario, which has the greatest population of practicing midwives, only 40 percent of women who want to receive prenatal care from a midwife are able to do so. Studies show that more Canadian women are looking to birthing practices outside of the hospital to gain more control of their own birth.
Though midwives have been unavailable to women, the desire for them has been clear for year now. In 2005, a study done by the University of Alberta showed that women friends would step up and educate themselves to help with births. The study also states that from a historical analysis, “a primary factor influencing midwifery’s rebirth has been the power and determination of women to demedicalize normal birth and return it to the domain of women.”
This idea of returning birth to the domain of women seems directly correlated to the work done by the Six Nations Maternal and Child Care Centre. Midwives are trained to help with many things including diabetes, domestic violence, and teaching traditional methods for keeping peace within the home for a new child.
Joanne General, a Cayuga woman who has gone through three births at the Centre, credits her midwives with going above and beyond in their caring and helping her through the pregnancy and birthing process. “For those of us that never were raised in a cultural environment, they really share with us that our stories and our language and our culture is so sacred,” General said. “Our midwives are First Nations people and hold that knowledge as grandmothers, as elders. They’re breaking colonialism every single day.”
The most important aspect, as highlighted by the Centre’s website, is that these services give women the choice and power over their own birth. This is conveyed perfectly through the Centre’s motto, “Putting our people first.” This change in care is a reflection that these communities and their traditions have a historical and medical importance.
Hospital births have been a challenge for Indigenous women, especially those in far Northern territories, but changes in how pregnancy and birth practices are addressed and supported by legislation can improve social ties within families and protect the health of both women and children.
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