by Alyssa Gagnon
My spirit name is nipi, which means water in Swampy Cree n dialect. The n dialect is spoken in various communities along the coasts of the James and Hudson Bay. The ancestral lands of my family are Fort Albany and Chisasibi along both sides of the James Bay coast, and I identify as a mixed-blood Cree iskwew (woman). My other name is Alyssa Gagnon and I am the mother to a sweet iskwesish (daughter) whose spirit name is masikisk (cedar) and to another chicheesh (baby) due to arrive at the end of December. I am a third year student in the Midwifery Education Program at Ryerson University in Toronto, Ontario.
From November 2015 to October 2016, I was the National Aboriginal Council of Midwives’ student representative and participated in community consultations with the Eeyou Itschee Midwifery File Cultural Working Group who worked to bring midwifery back to three Cree communities in northern Quebec: Chisasibi, Waskaganish, and Mistissini.
When I arrived in Chisasibi in July 2016, I stepped foot on the land where my nimushum (grandfather) is from and felt a sense of belonging. Not only did the land welcome me, so did family members I had not met before. More recently, I have become a member of the Association of Ontario Midwives’ Indigenous/Aboriginal Midwifery Advisory Council to offer an Indigenous student’s voice.
Like many Indigenous families in Canada, my family is no exception to the legacy of residential schooling. My grandfather, his siblings, and extended family members are survivors. This is the first reason why I pursued a career in midwifery – a solid and tangible way to support my People. I truly believe in blood memory and that the way we are brought into the physical world can affect our spirit for the rest of our lives. I believe in trauma-informed and culturally appropriate care for our People – care that is healing and land-based. As such, I relocated to Attawapiskat, Ontario for an eight-week placement and returned to Toronto at the beginning of November. Attawapiskat is a remote, fly-in community located on the west coast of the James Bay. Many moons ago, my auntie was born in a tent on this land probably near a trap line, one of the many modalities for sustenance by the Cree.
When I was a young child, I would travel to Moosonee on the Ontario Northland train with my kokom (grandma) when her brittle knees allowed her to be mobile. If we wanted to get fancy, we would take a freighter over to Moose Factory Island to walk around as rez dogs followed us hoping for handouts. At the age of 6 or 7, Moosonee is the place where I first met a midwife (little did I know). She was a kokom in her early 90s sitting with another kokom around the same age selling rosaries made up of moose hide and big beads on the side of a dirt road. In 2015 when I entered the midwifery program, I found out that this kokom I met more than 20 years earlier was indeed a midwife, but not the kind we see
toay. With my kokom being from Fort Albany and my nimushum (grandpa) from Chisasibi, my heart is entrenched into the aski (land) in and around the James Bay. I will always be a nomadic Cree and believe that birth was never meant to be a stagnant activity wrought with hospital confinement in low-risk situations.
For us, birth can be a meaningful catalyst for cultural ownership in lieu of historic and ongoing institutionalized and colonialist oppression. Indigenous health disparity is nothing new and Indigenous midwives are gatekeepers that support our People in navigating these hierarchal systems while peacefully resisting them.
There are many Indigenous midwives doing incredible things and I am humbled to call some of them, if not all of them, my mentors, teachers, and Elders. There is also a growing community of Indigenous student midwives who I am lucky to call friends. Be prepared Canada – there will be more of us working in every Indigenous community until every one of them has reclaimed birth as a sovereign act of cultural resiliency. Not only do midwives provide stellar clinical care, they bridge the gap between what colonization has done to this land and the bodies of our People. From what I have observed and learned so far, Indigenous midwives gracefully dismantle colonial systems that wish to maintain mechanisms that keep our birthing people compliant and dissatisfied with their health care. Land and body are inherently connected, and are not mutually exclusive phenomena.
More than 100 years ago, the work of Indigenous midwives was replaced with non-Indigenous, usually male doctors, who believed that birth was better suited to a hospital setting. Removing normal, low-risk birth from its traditional place on the land, and placing it in unfamiliar buildings further from home is yet another means to separate families. This instilled fear into our People who began to birth their babies void of ceremony and family members with the development of the evacuation policy in the 1960s. For years, traditional midwives have used, and passed on their knowledge to others within their communities, and outside of modern, Western channels.
Today, Indigenous midwives have been gathering together in order to bring back what is inherently ours: birth on the land. Now, the resurgence includes their ability to provide care within hospitals, and maintaining and opening practices across Canada.
Evacuation is a successful attempt by the federal government to institutionalize the birthing practices of Indigenous childbearing people. The Euro-Canadian bio-medical model perpetuates the socialization of the birthing process as something to be feared through monitored hospital containment even in low-risk situations. True reconciliation between the Canadian government and Indigenous people is only going to come about through the support of life givers. This requires new health care policies that implements the reclamation of Indigenous birthing systems that supports Indigenous childbearing people in determining their own perinatal care with proper referrals in high-risk situations.
I urge you to look up Neepeeshowan Midwives in Attawapiskat, Ontario, Seventh Generation Midwives Toronto, Inuulitsivik and Tulattavik health centres in Nunavik, Québec, the Rankin Inlet Birthing Centre (RIBC) and the Cambridge Bay Birthing Centre both located in Nunavut, the Fort Smith Health and Social Services Midwifery Program in the Northwest Territories, Kinosao Sipi Midwifery Clinic in Norway House, Manitoba, Tsi Non:we Ionnakeratstha Ona:grahsta’ Six Nations Maternal and Child Centre, Kontinenhanónhnha Tsi Tkaha:nayen located on Tyendinaga Mohawk territory, Kenhtè:ke Midwives, Kontinenhanónhnha Tsi Tkahà:nayen “they are protecting the seeds at the Bay of Quinte”, the midwives of Hay River Health and Social Services Authority located in Northwest Territories, K’Tigaaning Midwives located on Nipissing First Nation territory, and last, but not least, the Ionteksa’tanoronhkwa “child-cherishers” Homebirth Midwives located in Akwesasne, Ontario.
The provision of midwifery services is interwoven with the importance of keeping birth within communities. My hope for Indigenous midwifery to keep growing is informed by my own experience as someone who did not give birth on my land, but also in the narratives of birthing and parenting peoples that I heard through midwifery information gatherings that I have held on Taykwa Tagamou territory. My love of the land and my People motivates me to dream bigger and do more. A vision of mine is to contribute to the development of a community-based Cree midwifery education program, teach midwifery to people wishing to remain in their communities, and incorporate Cree language into the curriculum.
In June 2017, the federal government announced funding for Indigenous midwifery in Indigenous communities. It may not be enough, but it is a step in the right direction to true reconciliation between Canada and our People. Only by re-establishing connection to the land at birth, both for the infants, and those that birthed them, can we start reversing damage done by so many years of non-Indigenous medical policy. In Ontario, there are three university-based programs: Ryerson in Toronto, McMaster in Hamilton, and Laurentian in Sudbury. There is also a community-based training program located on Six Nations territory at the Tsi Non:we Ionnakeratstha Ona:grahsta’ Six Nations Maternal and Child Centre, which has traditional teachings and language embedded into their curriculum.
Indigenous midwives are primary health care providers who stay awake while the rest of the world sleeps. They provide clinical care, deconstruct patriarchy, liberate our lands and waters, and exceed our ancestor’s wildest dreams by bringing Indigenous babies into the world. As the only mushkegowuk student midwife, I am calling all Cree youth and those who are already nurses to consider becoming a midwife – we need you (I need you, ha!) However, people are working hard so that you will not have to leave your communities – as learners, life givers, and protectors of your families. One day, we will blossom further onto the land and there will be more midwifery practices along the coast of the James Bay, and even as far north as Peawanuck. There will be a return of kâkishkapikêshikêt (the one who cuts the cord) to all Indigenous communities.
Disclaimer: I do not represent any organization or institution mentioned in this article.
Alyssa Gagnon’s spirit name is nipi (water). She grew up on Taykwa Tagamou Nation territory and her ancestral lands are along the James Bay coast. She is a mother, a graduate of Indigenous Studies from Western University, and a third year student in the Midwifery Education Program at Ryerson University.