Aboriginal midwifery reclaims part of a lost culture in Manitoba

Wednesday, July 28 2010

WINNIPEG, March 1, 2006-An aboriginal midwifery university program nearly two years in the works is set to launch next fall in what advocates have described as a little bit of culture being returned.

The four-year midwifery degree will be offered through the University College of the North. It's believed to be the first such program in the world. University officials are hoping to enrol 10 students.

Currently, most women living on northern reserves must travel to large centres like Winnipeg to have their babies.

"For the past 40 or 50 years, the idea of birthing has been removed from the community, so that aspect of their culture has really been taken away," said Yvonne Peters, who heads the steering committee for the Aboriginal Midwifery Education Program.

"Returning birth to the community is returning a very key part of the culture. It's reclaiming an aspect of the culture that was lost."

According to aboriginal culture, childbirth is considered a sacred event.

The infant's birth represents the entrance of a new spirit into the world.

In the old days, aboriginal midwives would assist the mother with both the ceremonial and the physical aspects of birth.

But by the mid-1930s, midwifery in North America had been thoroughly discredited. For aboriginal women, the loss had an even greater impact.

According to a May 2004 report about aboriginal midwifery, removing the birthing process from aboriginal communities had profound spiritual and cultural consequences and was linked to the loss of cultural identity.

The report recommended midwifery training be provided to aboriginal women.

Leslie Spillett, who taught aboriginal awareness at the Health Sciences Centre, says many First Nations women from northern communities are terrified by the thought of travelling south to give birth.

The long-time aboriginal education activist points out that many of the moms-to-be don't speak English or French, and are uncomfortable being in a strange place, surrounded by strangers.

There is also a fear by many aboriginal women that their infants could be seized by social services agencies, says Spillett.

"You can be extremely quiet, and it looks like it's withdrawn behaviour, so you might present as somebody who's not interacting well with your baby," she said.

Midwifery has experienced a general revival since the 1990s. In 2000, Manitoba began to publicly fund the practice, and work began on setting up a course exclusively to serve the aboriginal community.

In December 2004, the province announced it would provide $1.6 million to develop the university course.

The program has the blessing of elders in northern communities and others who work with aboriginal women.

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