Pregnant Indigenous women are being forced to travel hundreds of kilometres to give birth alone and away from their communities. Health Canada has a birth evacuation policy that requires them to take planes, buses, boats, helicopters, taxis, or even snow machines two to four weeks before birth to await labour in boarding homes or motels.
The main reason that Indigenous women are forced to undergo travel is because they do not have access to adequate health care services on their reserves due to inconsistent funding and jurisdictional issues between the provincial and federal governments.
Once they arrive in urban centres, Indigenous mothers only have access to health care that does not incorporate traditional knowledge or cultural birthing practices.
This process is extremely stressful and isolating and puts Indigenous women and their babies’ health at risk. High levels of stress can increase the risk of postpartum depression and can suppress a mother’s immune system, which is especially dangerous during a global pandemic.
Silatik Qavvik, an Indigenous mother, contracted COVID-19 while travelling in accordance with the policy and died after giving birth to her daughter Lisi. This tragic death could have been avoided if she had had access to adequate care in her community.
The stress associated with the required travel is heightened by a lack of trust toward health care providers that stems from the experience Indigenous women have had with forced or coerced sterilization and the state-sanctioned apprehension of their newborn children.
Indigenous women have a constitutional right to life, liberty and security of the person and the constitutional right to equality. The federal government has a responsibility to provide these mothers with access to adequate birthing services within their communities in consultation with elders and people with lived experience.
There is no data to support that the policy has fulfilled its objective to protect the health of Indigenous women and their children. Instead, results show that poor maternal outcomes and infant mortality rates are twice as high in Indigenous populations when compared to non-Indigenous people.
In contrast, midwifery care that is provided in few rural areas is associated with a decrease in costs, a decrease in medical and surgical interventions and a decrease in certain adverse maternal outcomes. Moreover, their service produces results that are equal to or better than outcomes provided through evacuation.
Some community-led birthing centres, such as The Inuulitsivik Health Centre, the Rankin Inlet Birthing Centre, the Iewirokwas Midwifery Program, and the Tsi Non:we Ionnakeratstha Ona:grahsta: Six Nations Maternal and Child Centre, have been working to reclaim the experience of pregnancy and childbirth. Still, more has to be done.
Choices surrounding birth are extremely important and Indigenous women should not be deprived of having the highest levels of health and of preserving their traditional birthing practices.
Culturally safe birthing centres must be established and funded by the federal government on reserves immediately. Lives depend on it.
Carolina Maass is a law student at the University of Ottawa, studying feminist law reform in the French Common Law Program.