Missing Links

The Injustices Surrounding Prenatal Care in Canada

by Ciana Hamilton

Reproductive Justice isn’t a term that many people understand. And maybe that’s the first part of the problem. In contrast, abortion rights seem to be interpreted more easily; does a woman in Canada have the right to terminate her pregnancy? Yes. Does this mean Canada gets an A on reproductive justice? Not really.

Canada is one of the countries where abortion is legal; a woman who decides to abort her pregnancy in Canada has no legal restrictions. However, accessibility to abortion clinics can vary from province to province. If a woman chooses to abort her pregnancy but is unable to access an abortion clinic where does that leave her? Reproductive justice is the framework that gives an individual choice over their reproductive health, but puts the responsibility on governments to provide accessible care to accommodate those choices.

In 1994 a group of black women from Chicago recognized that there were other important reproductive issues, besides abortion, that were affecting women in their community. This group of women created the term Reproductive Justice. They called themselves the Women of African Descent for Reproductive Justice and their goal was to give black women a voice and a platform outside of the mainly white, middle class, women’s rights movement. Almost twenty-five years later the term is known worldwide and represents Indigenous Women, Women of Colour and Trans People.

Today many people of marginalized communities face reproductive injustice and oppression. Access to safe, compassionate prenatal care where both medical and cultural needs are met, doesn’t always happen. Women and families are not being given access to resources and information in order to make informed choices; community services are not accessible and their voices are not being heard. In Canada, Aboriginal women face the most significant inequality around maternal care, especially those in remote communities. Women of colour, women living at or below the poverty line, teen mothers, LGBTQ families and HIV positive women also face the reality of reproductive inequality when seeking care. There appears to be two crucial factors when discussing reproductive justice: inaccessible midwives and a lack of representation in the healthcare system.

Midwives

For many women, the first time their reproductive health is spotlighted is when they become pregnant. This was true for me, being pregnant for the first time at 23. I did not even know that I had reproductive rights. As a young, black, woman from a low-income home, I felt the system was stacked against me from the beginning. I did not have a family doctor and was nearing my second trimester without receiving any regular prenatal check-ups. I remember initially wanting a midwife but was unable to access one in the city I was in. I remember going to a walk-in clinic and practically begging the doctor to refer me to anyone who could provide prenatal care for my baby and me. She did not. Eventually, with some family help, I got in with a team of obstetricians. I was initially relieved, but quickly realized the type of care I would receive was nothing like I imagined. I got basic treatment; none of the doctors cared to know my name. None of the doctors asked if I had a birth plan. I was not given options or choices. I was handed requisitions for tests and sent on my way. I didn’t know who would deliver my baby until the day of delivery. Reflecting on my experience with my first child, what sticks out for me was my desire to have a midwife and being unable to access one. I didn’t know much about midwifery but I felt like a midwife would be the obvious choice for compassionate, trustworthy and respectful care.

Midwifery has gained traction over the years, going from a misunderstood hippie alternative to the more natural, inclusive option. In fact, more parents are continuing to seek out care from midwives. According to the Better Outcome Registry Network or BORN, in Ontario between 2014-2015, midwives cared for 15% of all births in the province. It also helps that midwifery services are covered by OHIP. And, although there has been an increase in the amount of midwives providing care, there still seems to be a lack of midwifery services in the communities that need it the most. If given the choice, I strongly believe most women, specifically marginalized women, would choose to be cared for by a midwife. However, if midwifery services are inaccessible in their community, then there is no choice.

In early December I sat down with Martha Aitkin, a registered midwife in Guelph who has been practicing for 21 years. She believes there are some key differences between care from a doctor and care from a midwife. “The way we organize and the way we give care gives us a lot more time. Time with women and their families to get to know who they are and what is important to them. Time to answer their questions and share information to allow them to make their own decisions about their care.” Aitkin adds, “if a person has a midwife then they have a known care provider, someone they have had a chance to develop a relationship with – someone that they trust. That enhances the safety of their care.”

Pictured above from top to bottom: Martha Aitkin and Nicole Barrette

The midwifery model of care is beautifully simple. Give women choice. Give women a safe space to ask questions, review options and be vulnerable. Give people who identify as LGBTQ+ an inclusive space that is accepting and easily adaptable to non-binary lifestyles. Provide access to materials that can educate and inform families about choices around parenting.

Midwives also provide in home, postpartum care up to six weeks following the birth. For women in the far north, such as Nunavut, extended postpartum care within their own community could be extremely supportive. These women could potentially receive extra support around breastfeeding, diagnosis and treatment of postpartum depression, as well as incorporating traditional medicines for physical healing. Martha spoke about her experience providing care for Inuit women in Nunavut, one of the places that still suffers the most reproductive injustice in Canada. “Most women in Nunavut have to go far away, separate from their families to other cities – Edmonton, Winnipeg, Yellowknife to have their babies. They could be gone for a month to six weeks separated from their other children and the rest of their community. That’s an injustice as far as I’m concerned and the solution as far as I can see is the growth of midwifery services provided by Inuit people for Inuit people.” Martha is right; one possible solution for many Indigenous women living in remote communities across Canada is the growth of midwives in their communities. Imagine the possibilities, women would have access to a midwife close to their home, receive regular prenatal care and be able to deliver their babies in an environment where they feel safe.

When I became pregnant with my second child, I knew I wanted my experience to be different. I wanted to exercise my reproductive rights to the fullest. I wanted to be cared for by a midwife. I wanted an un-medicated homebirth. I wanted to breastfeed. Luckily, I was able to access and get what I had hoped for. I was cared for by two midwives in Guelph, I had a completely non-medicated home birth and I have proudly breastfed my daughter for more than a year. My second experience completely changed my views on reproductive care and reproductive choice. My voice was heard and my choices were respected. Instead of being told to take certain tests, I was asked. I felt empowered and valued as a parent. A part of this empowerment came from the quality of care I received by other women. My midwives were women who respected the autonomy of pregnancy and parenthood. We worked as a team to strategize the safest maternal care and delivery for me. They ensured that I always felt comfortable with any procedure or test that needed to take place. Ultimately, the connection between my midwives and I grew much deeper than I could have anticipated. And as a result, I felt safe.

Representation

If we are looking at ending reproductive injustice than we need to look at equal representation amongst care providers. Midwives provide a piece of that representation; they represent the power and beauty that is a woman birthing a child. They represent the diversity in methods of care. They represent open spaces for different family dynamics. However, midwives are in high demand and in short supply. Not having equal representation in the healthcare system for a marginalized person creates an automatic distrust and assumption that those providing care – the doctors, the nurses – don’t understand the issues that a vulnerable person might face. Representation doesn’t begin and end with healthcare professionals; doulas, childbirth educators, lactation consultants and patient advocates also need to be included to represent the diversity of the people receiving care.

Two years ago I began volunteering for Women Everywhere Breastfeed (WEB), a volunteer run program out of the Guelph Community Health Centre. The cafe offered by WEB is held weekly and is aimed at anyone in the community who may be facing challenges around breastfeeding and who is looking for accessible support from their peers. The program is coordinated by Nicole Barrette, an advocate for reproductive justice, who is deeply invested in ensuring that her work remains inclusive of all people who are needing support during their parenting journey. Nicole is also a birth and postpartum doula and has been for 11 years. She has first-hand experience with the layers of stigma that marginalized women and families face from health care providers when receiving reproductive care. One group we talked about were parents who identify as LGBTQ+, specifically Trans people. “There’s a lack of gender diversity acknowledgment – not everybody who has a baby is identifying as a woman. We talk about breastfeeding/chestfeeding at the WE Breastfeed program.

Chestfeeding, the term Nicole mentioned, is an example of how interchangeable language can be used to make a program more representative of all parents who may choose to attend. Chestfeeding is a term that could be used by a Trans masculine or gender-non-conforming parent. It simply takes out the word breast for a parent who is using the milk from their body   to feed their child, but because they do not identify as a woman, the term breast [may?] conflict with their gender identity. Most hospitals and doctors’ offices have information promoting breastfeeding, and the term breastfeeding is almost always used. WEB is one of the only places I’ve seen that includes terminology that would be representative of Trans parents.

If we are looking for ways to end reproductive injustice, then we must allow communities to represent themselves in the healthcare system. Reproductive justice starts at the grassroots level- people with diverse backgrounds and experiences need to be at hospitals, clinics or community centres offering advocacy services and providing basic resources to educate people.

Collective efforts need to be put forth to educate, empower and equip those who are victimized by Canada’s accessible, but oppressive health care system. The Women of African Descent created the term and set the stage for an open and honest discussion around reproductive injustices faced by marginalized women. It is up to us to demand a change from a system that needs to be held accountable.


Ciana Hamilton
Ciana Hamilton is a freelance writer based out of Guelph,Ontario. She respectfully honours Turtle Island as sacred Indigenous lands. Her work leans towards creative non-fiction and she enjoys writing about issues surrounding advocacy, justice, feminism and cultural ancestry.

The Digital Mirror: Why Gamers of Colour Demand Representation in Gaming

Two people holding hands with their back turned. One is an adily with a raised fist on his back and an afro the other is a young boy with a gaming controller in his other hand his shirt reads "black gamer excellence"
by Andray Domise

A few years ago, a friend and I founded a program called TXDL to teach youth of diverse backgrounds how to make video games. As part of our pilot program, we asked students to send us character reference sheets, visual and written summaries of the characters the students wanted to create.

While combing through the student e-mails, one of the submissions caught me off-guard. The character, Samuel, should be typical as far as action game heroes go. Tall, muscular, arched eyebrows, clever grin. But this character description was far from typical. Sporting an afro and thick sideburns, armed with a sword strapped to his back, Samuel was far from a trope or a sidekick.

According to his creator, Samuel was to be:

  • African American, a martial arts expert, and a weapons specialist
  • The leader of a resistance movement seeking to liberate the world from the evil organization’s clutches
  • Strong-willed, fierce, and courageous. Willing to risk some things to achieve victory in battles
  • Compassionate towards his people

It might not seem like much, but for a gamer like myself, raised to expect either no Black characters or bizarre caricatures of blackness in the games I play, it was a lot. When I talked to the creator about his character, and what he hoped to accomplish with his adventure game, his answer was “I want to play the hero and feel like this is someone I could actually be. Not a thug, or an athlete or something.” Hearing his answer gave me one of the proudest moments I’d had in years. As someone who grew up unused to seeing people like me represented in video games, I’d finally helped a budding gamer become self-actualized in the medium.

I was a minority gamer growing up. By “minority,” I don’t just mean a gamer of colour, although I was (and am) that too. What I mean is, I was in the minority of console owners. Just about every kid in my elementary school with a video game console was an NES gamer, but I owned a Sega Master System. Which meant there was exactly two other kids in my entire school to trade cartridges with. And this was okay by us; in a way, we were our own little fan club and trading hub. We’d read Electronic Gaming Monthly religiously, making note of release dates so we could coordinate our game purchases. If one of them put Phantasy Star on his birthday wish list, I scribbled Ys on mine. If one of us asked Santa for Wonder Boy, someone else was guaranteed to find Zillion under the Christmas tree.

It was a pretty good system we had going. In the dozens of games we played and traded while I owned that ugly red and black Sega box, I felt connected to a small and exclusive group. In the fourth grade, I smuggled the plastic cartridge cases for my Master System games along with my school books when I went to school. During lunch time in the cafeteria, I’d leave the cases out next to my lunch tray. Sure enough, other Master System owners would show up to ask if I’d beaten the games, and if I’d maybe like to trade games with them for a week. My love for Sega and its brand helped me build a social circle.

But it wasn’t until I owned a Sega Genesis, just before middle school, that I truly understood what representation meant. Up to that point, I’d never played a single Sega game that featured a Black character who wasn’t a celebrity or an athlete. By that time, the absence of Black people not only in games, but in nerd culture and mass media at large, was background noise. Always present, but only an irritant if one stopped and paid attention. In 1991, the Genesis game Streets of Rage arrived, and one of the three playable lead characters was Adam, a Black former boxer and police officer helping to rid his city of a ruthless crime syndicate. It was the first time I’d ever picked up a controller and played as an imaginary Black protagonist.

Up to that point, the paltry amount of Black representation in gaming was stereotypical and derivative to the point where creators should have been embarrassed. In every fighting game franchise up to that point, just about every Black character was a boxer. In every other genre, Black characters were either savages or gang members. There was no role for us, outside of the narrow categories that western media, steeped as it was in white supremacy, had allowed us to occupy. Playing Axel for the first time felt like a minor breakthrough. Even though his backstory, of course, had to mention his past as a boxer, for the first time in my life I could see myself in a game’s protagonist.

Unfortunately, the gaming industry still had a long way to go.

In 2007, Capcom released the first trailer for Resident Evil 5 (RE5), the hotly anticipated latest entry in the survival horror series. The trailer was immediately lambasted .1. for its use of racial tropes, and mired the game in controversy over the two years leading up to its release. In that trailer, the camera follows burly white protagonist Chris Redfield as he kicks, punches, and shoots his way through wave after wave of Africans infected with a zombie virus. The backlash to the imagery of the trailer – nondescript poverty-stricken African country, western colonizers plundering the land and people, a white saviour venturing into the darkest heart of Africa to inflict violence – was met with a secondary backlash from gamers who believed those disturbed by it were the real racists. 

Well-known game critic Jim Sterling, writing for Destructoid.com 2 at the time in response to a blogger post about RE5, said “It does, however, take a really self-centered, perhaps even racist individual, to see it as “the white man killing MY people.” Wesley Yin-Poole at videogamer.com contacted “leading racism expert” Glenn Bowman, at the time a senior Anthropology lecturer at the University of Kent, to ask whether the game was, in fact, racist. 

 


1.John, Tracey (17 August 2009). “Newsweek’s N’Gai Croal on the Resident Evil 5 Trailer: This Imagery Has a History” www.mtv.com/news/2456617/newsweeks-ngai-croal-on-the-resident-evil-5-trailer-this-imagery-has-a-history/

2. Sterling, Jim (1 August 2007). “Resident Evil 5 is SO RACIST: The idiocy begins.” https://www.destructoid.com/resident-evil-5-is-so-racist-the-idiocy-begins-37196.phtml 


Bowman answered that the imagery of “black faces and…motifs of African masks and the like,” were not racist; the game had to be set somewhere, and since its setting was in Africa, African imagery was part and parcel. It later turned out that Bowman, whose areas of expertise were in Palestinian and Yugoslavian political anthropology, was not, in fact a “leading racism expert;” he asked to not be identified as such. 

Perhaps most surprisingly, motion actors Karen Dyer and T.J. Storm, both of whom identify as Black, explained in an AP interview that there was nothing racist about the “It’s in Africa! It’s been in Africa, it’s been in Spain, it’s been in the midwest (United States),” said Storm, in one segment. “It wasn’t racist then, why should it be racist now? It’s in Africa. Have fun with the game! Play the game!”

 What Dyer, Storm, and game critics back then missed (and have plenty of company in gaming industry types who miss the point now), was that, regardless of whether any harm was intended, video game narratives are not exempt from history and political context. While many were caught up in the images of, for example, infected African men dragging a white woman into a house to infect her with the virus, it doesn’t seem that many bothered to examine what it meant to take the zombie trope to Africa.

The zombie legend itself originated from Haitian folklore, in the blood-soaked sugar cane fields of St. Domingue – the name of the French colony prior to the Haitian slave rebellion. The vodun beliefs of West Africa – transported to St. Domingue in the minds and bodies of a kidnapped people – held that the spirits of slaves who died in bondage were returned to Guinée (or Guinea). By being converted into a zombie, the spirit was held captive for eternity. What then to make of the idea that a nondescript and monolithic Africa could be overrun by horrific creatures that people casually call “zombies?”

What began as a dream of release from the horrors of slavery became twisted the 20th century as the zombie trope that undergirds the Resident Evil franchise. Worse, subverted in such a way that West African spirituality was denatured and reflected back to Western audiences as the ultimate degeneration into colonial stereotypes of Africa itself: savagery, disease, and cannibalism.

In the ten years since the release of Resident Evil 5’s trailer, progress in the industry has been rather rocky. Tropes which should have died a long time ago, including the crude and sassy Black woman, and the hypermasculine Black male, still persist. Fictional worlds heavily influenced by Western European folklore dominate the RPG landscape, yet the rich, bizarre, and at times psychedelic folklore of sub-Saharan and eastern Africa have yet to be explored.

On the other hand, there has been much progress. Multiple studies show that young Black people not only spend more time on video games than their peers, but that Black millennials exert an outsized influence on social media. Game companies seem to be tuned into this fact. Over the last few years, Black characters are not only being explored more fully as human beings with diverse interests and personalities, they’re being placed front and centre. Mafia III, for example, set in the Vietnam-era South, follows a Black protagonist on a revenge journey against the mob and the KKK alike. Watch Dogs 2 is led by Marcus Halloway, a Black hacker, and the game’s sense of humour is heavily steeped in the code-switching reality of Black people who exist in tech spaces.

There’s obviously much more work to be done, which is why TXDL exists to help nudge forward the goal of inclusive tech spaces. But reading that character reference sheet, and speaking with the student who produced it, I was struck by the difference in the landscape for Black people in gaming now, versus the environment in which I cut my teeth. At least we now have the platform to demand visibility, and to cause disruption when game companies get it wrong. I look forward to one day picking up a controller and playing as Samuel, as well as mailing the pre-written thank-you note to the student who created him.

I plan on putting it in the mail, the day when people of colour have achieved true representation in the video game industry, and organizations like TXDL will no longer be necessary.


 

Andray Domise
Andray Domise is a Toronto-based writer and the co-founder of TXDL, a tech skills development program for youth. 

Creating the Content We Want to See

the young writers of black girls magazine posing together and holding their black girl magazine

An Interview with Black Girls Magazine founder Annette Bazira-Okafor

By: Savannah Clarke

When I was around 10 years-old I used to collect magazines for fun. I loved the posters, quizzes, horoscopes and all the gossip. I use to love getting the free magazines from friends and different offices. The only thing was the majority of these magazines didn’t have many black folks in it. Aside from the obvious teen hip hop magazine like Word Up! The rest of the magazines I collected were just white.I would get annoyed but had to overlook this very large detail because “that’s how it was”. Even though I enjoyed collecting and later collaging because it was meditative, I had little images or stories that I could relate to. Many black teens have felt this frustration with not seeing themselves or hearing their stories in media especially in magazines, something that use to be synonymous with teenhood. While most of us accept this as fact and relish in the moments we do see ourselves, others create those moments for themselves. Founders and contributors of Black Girls Magazines is a perfect example.

BGM was created by a group of black middle school students within the GTA as a response to not seeing themselves in the magazines and apps that they used. BGM is a magazine that offers unique perspectives written by black girls for all girls. It aims to reflect the images, interests, and stories of black girls. I contacted Annette Bazira-Okafor founder and mother of one of the young contributors to learn more about BGM and how these young girls are creating the content they want to see.

Savannah Taylor: Can you let us know who you are and explain to us more about the Black Girls Magazine?

Annette: My name is Annette Bazira-Okafor. I am a doctoral student at OISE (Ontario Institute for Studies in Education), University of Toronto. I am also the founder and editor of Black Girls Magazine.

Savannah Taylor: What was the moment that brought you to want to create Black Girls Magazine?

Annette: Part of my research at OISE has been on African youth and popular culture. I came across the work of Dr. Craig Watkins, and in his book he speaks about the fact the black girls are the most underserved and undiscernible demographic in popular culture. As a mother as well, I have always observed the lack of black representation in the online makeup and dressup apps that my daughter and her friends love.Creating Black Girls Magazine was a way for me to get them to create representations of themselves and write about their own interests and experiences as black girls.

Savannah Taylor: I know that the girls write the material in the magazine, what are some of those topics?

Annette: Some of the topics are stories about their hair like ‘weird things people ask about my hair’; movie reviews in our section called ‘Hollywood scoop’; recipes; sports, particularly basketball by one of the girls who is a basketball player; the girls’ travel experiences to different countries; and our last issue included a christmas section and a section on “people in black history” in anticipation of Black History month. We publish twice a year so we try to include diverse topics that cover both current and upcoming events, seasons or holidays.

Savannah Taylor: When I was younger I use to love collecting magazines, having access to this magazine would have been very refreshing for me to say the least, how do you feel like this magazine could be medicine or healing for other black girls to read?

Annette: I feel very grateful and overwhelmed that it turned out this way, because when I first started, I was simply doing this with a small group of girls, unaware of the interest that it would garner, not only in the black community but in mainstream media as well. I am so grateful that I have been a part of creating a platform for other black girls as well. In the magazine we request black girls to send us their stories, artwork or anything else they would love to see in the magazine, so we can have more diverse voices from black girls represented.

Savannah Taylor: So often marginalized youth don’t see themselves in magazines, tv shows, books, etc. how can teachers and youth workers play a role in supporting youth to create and access media that speaks to their experiences? Why do you think that is important?

Annette: Often books that represent black people and their cultures are very few or rare in schools, and often they are limited to non-fiction or slavery, basically history or social studies, and may be used only during black history month. I think teachers should include such cultural books as a daily part of student learning. Teachers should put in extra effort into making story books, magazines, and and many more reading resources that represent black people and culture a part of school curricula. Young children in schools regardless of race should have access to more picture books that represent black people and culture. Positive images and representations of black people should be normalized in mainstream institutions so as to dispose of stereotypes often perpetuated in media and schools. Youth workers and teachers create lasting impressions on the minds of black youth. Validating black youth by normalizing their cultures and representations go a long way into giving them confidence and guiding their journey to success.

Savannah Taylor: How has the journey of creating Black Girls Magazine changed yours or the girls perspective on what representation can look like?

Annette: Being able to create representations of themselves and write stories embedded in their cultures and experiences, I feel has given the girl’s confidence to speak about their stories and to boldly represent themselves through images that are normally invisible in popular culture.

Savannah: Do you or the girls have any big ideas for the future of Black Girls Magazine?

Annette: We hope to build the readership of the magazine and invite more black girls to contribute to it. We also hope to attract corporate sponsors who can help us move the project forward. I finance the project out of pocket, and foot the all printing costs and other costs associated with the magazine. Hopefully with sponsors, we can start publishing quarterly rather than twice a year.

Savannah Taylor: Where can people go to learn more and possibly get their own copy of Black Girl Magazine?

Annette: People can buy copies and subscribe by going to our website www.blackgirlsmagazine.ca


Annette Bazira-Okafor
Annette Bazira-Okafor is a PhD candidate at OISE, University of Toronto, department of Social Justice Education.  She is the founder and Editor of Black Girls Magazi

Savannah Clarke
Savannah Clarke is a young performing artist. She has recently graduated with her undergraduate and  is an alumni of the Watah Theatre. She is now currently growing her art form. Her art has always been attached to her identity as a black queer woman and she strongly believes that storytelling is essential for the movement of black liberation.  While she continues to unearth what her artistry can look like, she stays committed to connecting and understanding the integrity of its roots.