The return of Cree babies being born on Cree land – surrounded by the women in their family and community – is something Cree Elders have advocated for since it stopped in 1997.
According to Laura Bearskin the Nishiiyuu Assistant Executive Director at the Cree Board of Health and Social Services James Bay, the CBHSSJB’s efforts to bring midwifery back to Eeyou Istchee started in 2007. However, it wasn’t until 2017 that midwife Jessyka Boulanger was hired to begin consulting with an obstetrician gynecologist and the Montreal Children’s Hospital on how to set up a department up north.
A year later, in autumn 2018, Boulanger along with two other midwives began offering their services in a pilot project at the Chisasibi hospital.
Cree Elders were instrumental in bringing birth back to the land, noted Bearskin, because there are so many important Cree traditions attached to it. Now that it is back, they want the culture and the traditions associated with birth embedded within the birthing process.
“Welcoming the baby is very important for the Elder naming the baby,” explained Bearskin. “The Cree naming ceremony happens right away when the baby is born. This is a part of our traditions that was lost and we are trying to bring back. Having that person available on site is essential and is all about reconnecting. This is one of the reasons it is important for us to include our culture as part of welcoming the baby.”
It’s also integral to have the kauutinaaushuut – the person who will catch the new life – involved, Bearskin emphasized. Having the support of the birthing woman’s mother, grandmothers, aunts and sisters is paramount for both mother and child from a spiritual perspective.
“To hear about a grandmother catching the baby is amazing. This was our goal, to have those precious moments shared by the families,” Bearskin told the Nation.
For Boulanger, working for Indigenous communities has always been a priority and she jumped at the opportunity to work for the CBHSSJB. And while births are currently taking place only in Chisasibi, she says soon births will begin taking place in the home when a birthing-home is built.
There is a plan in place with the Ministry of Health and Social Services to create a three-room birthing-home in Chisasibi with additional two-room birthing houses in Waskaganish and Mistissini. There are also plans to train Cree midwives in the future, however that process is still in the consultation phase.
Boulanger said that shortly after her arrival in Chisasibi, she was asked by Elders who were having a Nishyiiu meeting just how soon she could begin her practice.
“As far as they were concerned, since I was there, the births needed to start – they did not want to wait any longer,” said Boulanger.
However, without any obstetrics or pediatrics departments on Cree territory, Boulanger told them it would take time. The Cree mini-hospitals are not equipped for emergency C-sections or epidurals. A lot of planning had to be in place, and in cases of emergency, women will still have to be medivaced out.
Once all the administrative work was done, the CBHSSJB wanted to ensure that “cultural safety” was in place so that the old ways and traditions could return to the land as a means of healing.
As outsiders, the midwives needed to learn how to be
culturally sensitive and how to provide the appropriate “informed care”. The
CBHSSJB is currently preparing a booklet about Cree births, regarding cultural
care and tradition for the Cree communities.
Boulanger was the midwife for Louisa Snowboy, who became pregnant around the same time as her sister Christina and both opted to go with local midwives in Chisasibi.
What stood out for Boulanger was how much of an emotional and spiritual journey birth was for the Cree.
“What they have taught me is that the choices that a mother makes during her pregnancy and who should be there at the birth is a manifestation of the choice of the baby,” said Boulanger.
While she said much discussion took place during the process to get birth back on the land, the fact that pregnant women are separated from their families for long periods of time was a major factor, as was the issue of risk.
Boulanger stressed that having the pregnant mother away – often from her other small children – placed an undue amount of strain on her. In terms of risk, as other Indigenous groups have had midwives assist births on traditional territory in the Arctic and the Northwest Territories for years, Boulanger said that “there is no such thing as a zero-risk pregnancy.”
“This is about what is the meaning of life. An Inuit Elder spoke during the consultations in the 1980s when they were bringing birth back to the Arctic who said, ‘I hear you talk a lot about risk, but did you know that there is a lot more risk in living a life without meaning?’ The Cree Elders talked a lot about this as well,” recounted Boulanger.
As for the actual birth she assisted on, Boulanger described it as a powerful and emotional experience. Cree culture coming together at once for some spectacular moments of heartfelt tradition from the past and ecstatic joy shared by family members. She said she felt really “blessed.”
When Snowboy went into labour, Boulanger went to Snowboy’s home and waited until the expectant mother was ready to go to the hospital. During that time her sister came in with fresh bannock made in a teepee that had been set up nearby. When it was time to go to the hospital, a group of female family members, including her mother and aunts, formed a circle around Snowboy’s bed while she gave birth.
It was Snowboy’s choice, during pre-natal planning, to have her own mother catch the baby. After the baby’s head emerged, Boulanger went to get Annie Sam, Snowboy’s mother.
“I told her that because it is your grandchild, you don’t need to put gloves on. The first hand that the baby would feel would be their grandmother’s hand,” recounted Boulanger. “She came to me and asked, ‘What do I do?’ I said, she should wait until the head emerges and then put hands out and welcome the life that your daughter is giving you. And, that was what she did – she welcomed the life coming into the world from her daughter.”
A beaming Sam was able to tell her daughter that it was a girl. Boulanger said at that moment she just stepped back because this was exactly what the CBHSSJB had worked so hard to do – to give Crees back what had been taken away from them. Snowboy and her entourage got to cry tears of joy and share that very special moment as the infant was received by Cree hands, speaking Cree words and surrounded by the love of Cree people.