It’s been a busy year since the Northern Birthwork Collective started its quest to bring more culturally relevant and accessible reproductive healthcare to the NWT last June.
The group began amid a surge of activism related to the Black Lives Matter movement.
Seeing the need for doula services honouring Black, Indigenous, and other People of Colour (BIPOC), co-founders Sabrina Flack, Dehga Scott, and others teamed up to address the issue themselves.
“It’s been a lot of work, but it’s been really amazing to see this come to light and just see where things can go,” Scott told Cabin Radio. “We will create that change and we will make things happen for the North because it’s needed and I know people want it.”
“Our mission is to be able to have access to that support, and for that support to be free of oppression, to be free of racism, to be free of inflicting and causing further harm,” said Flack, a full-spectrum doula who also owns and operates Moon Sprout Birthwork in Yellowknife.
Flack and Scott have hosted several sharing circles for BIPOC people who are pregnant or have recently given birth.
They’ve also begun creating a network of doulas in the territory. The aim with this is two-fold, according to Flack: to build community between birth workers themselves and make continuity of care possible.
“Say someone does have to be evacuated from their community to Yellowknife,” she explained. “They [would] have a doula in their community, hopefully, who’s able to provide some really good prenatal care, do prenatal visits.
“Then when they go back to their community after, they have someone who can support them postpartum there … that piece around continuity of care is so important.”
‘The power of having both’
Scott, who is Tłı̨chǫ Dene, believes the collective’s most important work is decolonizing the reproductive journey for marginalized communities.
“For me as an Indigenous person, and as an Indigenous mother … a lot of people don’t have that support, and they don’t feel that comfort or safety in a medicalized institution,” she said.
“Yes, there’s a time and place for birthing practices within the hospital, but we also need to realize that our bodies are quite capable of birthing babies. If you look back at our traditional practices, then you can see that our people are very strong.”
Flack added: “Allowing people to have a choice and what they want their experience to be is super important.”
Mahalia Yakeleya-Newmark, one of four members of the collective’s steering committee, knows first-hand the power of having access to traditional knowledge and practices when giving birth.
A mother to two young daughters, she had Dene Elder Be’sha Blondin assist her through her second pregnancy.
“I wasn’t just cared for physically,” she said, “I was cared for mentally, emotionally, and even spiritually. When I gave birth to my first daughter and the traditional healer was there, she prayed. The drum, prayer … and my daughter was sung over.
“What it showed me is the power of having both Western medical care paired with Indigenous knowledge that comes from thousands of years of knowledge of our people taking care of ourselves. That experience showed me that one, it’s possible, but two, that all women should have that opportunity to have it.”
Ensuring Indigenous people have access to this care is critical, said Yakeleya-Newmark.
“One of the main goals is that women have that choice, and that those resources are available, and that we are training women within the territory to do that,” she said.
Indigenous doula training
Scott is now creating a training program for Indigenous doulas that is NWT-specific and will touch on traditional practices across Denendeh.
“I wanted parents who were giving birth to be able to stay in their home communities instead of having to leave to come to Yellowknife or Inuvik or wherever else,” she explained.
Scott is in the process of assembling an Elders’ committee who will advise on curriculum content. She hopes to finish the curriculum by December this year then pilot it next spring.
In the meantime, the collective is hosting a four-day Indigenous doula training program at the end of July. It will use a curriculum developed in Manitoba and be facilitated by Indigenous doulas Melissa Brown and Candace Neumann.
“I love being in a room with people learning about birth work,” said Flack. “It’s such a powerful space to be in because we were all born, so we all have a birth story. Watching people connect to that and learn about birth is amazing.”
Training more Indigenous residents to be doulas means more culturally appropriate care in the NWT, Scott added, and is a much-needed step in addressing racism, homophobia, transphobia, and prejudice.
“It’s vital that we address these issues at day one,” Scott said. “[If] our families have support from the very beginning and our communities have support from the very beginning, our communities will be stronger. Our communities will be healthier, and our communities will be able to do a lot more.
“You’ll heal a whole family. Then, you’ll heal a whole community.”