Christine Roy has been a midwife for 22 years and she hopes her expertise and the assistance of the Cree Health Board will bring midwifery back to Eeyou Istchee – and soon.

“The job of a midwife is such rewarding work,” said Roy, who has delivered, in her estimation, 500 to 600 babies. “You follow all these women through their pregnancies and these couples giving birth together and bringing these children up. And then they come back for another child and you’re a midwife of all these children who are growing up. Essentially, you’re at the birth of the next generation, and it’s a really, really wonderful job.”

Roy works as a midwife at the Eastern Townships Birthing Centre in Sherbrooke. She says it’s time Cree women joined the growing phenomenon.

“I think an Aboriginal midwifery program makes total sense,” she argued. “We can create a midwife program that really matches what the community needs. So we can nicely blend all the newest knowledge in obstetrics with tradition so you have the best of both worlds in it.”

Midwives can deliver babies if need be. They go through four years of training that includes neo-natal resuscitation, and the ability to intubate newborns until they can be transferred to a neo-natal intensive care unit.

Roy says that countries like the Netherlands are far ahead of Quebec in terms of midwifery and how the practice is viewed. “They deliver all their babies like that, whereas in Quebec there are only about 1,000 births per year facilitated by a midwife,” she said. “We actually have to turn away about 60 people per year because we don’t have the staff.”

A few problems have to be ironed out, however, if midwifery is to come to Eeyou Istchee. The first obstacle is suitable housing. That’s something that Bella Petawabano, the Director of Children’s Programs for the Cree Health Board in Mistissini, hopes to find a solution for.

“The big plan is to introduce birthing services to all of the communities,” Petawabano said. “We’re starting with Waskaganish and the next place we’ll take into consideration is Chisasibi.”

Petawabano was part of a contingent to explore the possibility of midwifery in Eeyou Istchee in early April. “We’re returning to Waskaganish at the end of June to speak to the younger generation, the women that are having babies today,” Petawabano said about the consultations that are set to take place June 27-29. “Those are the ones who will decide whether they want this program or not.”

She added that the consultation process is not something that’s just popped up. There had been discussions in the 1980s and 1990s to address the birthing situation in the north. Lack of health professionals and personnel were cited as reasons why it never got off the ground. Now, however, there are enough of those workers to properly facilitate the new services.

Getting your baby delivered by a Cree midwife, even if the practice is approved and welcomed by the people, is at least four years off. That’s how long it takes to train a midwife to be ready for any scenario, and there are currently no Eeyouch being trained for the position.

“If this program becomes a reality the Cree women will no longer have to leave their communities, they can remain there when it’s time to give birth, and they’ll be able to have their family present,” she said. “The anticipation of a new family member is a time of joy; it’s not a time when the family should experience disruption.”

Dr. Jimmy Deschesnes has been a family doctor in Chisasibi for 13 years and is also pushing for the midwife program’s success.

“Back in 2001 we stopped offering obstetrics,” said Dr. Deschesnes. “We had to abandon the practice because there were not enough physicians up north that were able to perform obstetrics to sustain the service.

“A few years ago I was mandated to look at the possibility of bringing back the service. We looked at training physicians up here who didn’t have obstetric experience, but that didn’t work out for a number of reasons. So I thought that the best way to get the service up here was to hire midwives,” he said.

“At this point it looks like we’ll be able to find enough midwives to start the program up north in one of the communities.”

Dr. Deschesnes told the Nation that northern midwives would work differently from their southern neighbours. “Down south a doctor only takes over from a midwife if a medical problem develops. I think if we had midwives up here the rules are going to have to be a bit different. It’s going to have to be a collaborative effort. If a patient contracts diabetes for instance, the mother would be followed by both the physician and the midwife.”

But Petawabano cautioned that midwifery is not a magical cure for mothers who abuse their bodies or continue to drink and smoke while pregnant. “In the past women were active right until the very hour they gave birth,” Petawabano said. “The lifestyles that these women had then and now are very different.”

“The mothers ate well so their babies would. They avoided any traumatic experiences and were very active. If you compare that to today, people eat things that can be quick to prepare but very bad for them. Plus they put themselves in traumatic situations quite often,” she said.

“This is a very important initiative as we move forward to take responsibility of our health and well-being. We need more than ever to take this responsibility back and I believe midwifery will do that for the women of today.”