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This article was published 6/12/2018 (924 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
When Shaneen Robinson-Desjarlais found out in April she was pregnant with her second child, she knew she wanted to tackle the challenges of labour and birth differently this time.
"That was the first thing I said to (my husband, Martin)," she said. "I’m not going to put myself through what I went through again."
It was a little over four years ago, but Robinson-Desjarlais, 38, said she remembers her son’s birth clearly.
She arrived at the hospital with her family, but her regular doctor wasn’t working that day.
Her birth plan had outlined a water birth and nitrous oxide for pain, but she was told neither was available. She brought a gown she had worn in Indigenous ceremonies that she wanted to wear to give birth, but was informed, plainly, she would have to change into a hospital gown.
"I just felt like there was no empathy there," Robinson-Desjarlais said. "There was no basic human kindness. I was treated like a number, like I was nobody."
This time, she’s hoping to take a more traditional approach. As a Cree woman, Robinson-Desjarlais said she wants to get back to Indigenous birthing philosophies.
"When you have a child in our traditional ways, it’s a sacred thing," she said. "You’re supposed to have your aunties, your sisters, your cousins, your mother, your grandmothers — whoever you want — as your support system."
Right now — between working full time and caring for her four-year-old son, Sampson, and a three-year-old foster daughter with her husband — Robinson-Desjarlais is also in the process of looking for an Indigenous doula through the Manitoba Indigenous Doula Initiative.
Without access to one, the former CTV News reporter and University of Winnipeg grad worries she’ll be left without a voice in the childbirth process.
"The lack of support that I felt at such a sensitive time — like, you’re bringing life into the world, becoming a mother for the first time," she said.
"And me — as an established, educated woman — for me to feel so vulnerable and disrespected and anxious and stressed, I can only imagine what young women that can’t even advocate for themselves are going through."
While the doula initiative is open to all Indigenous women, it’s these women in particular — young women, women dealing with addiction issues, women at risk of having their children apprehended by Child and Family Services — the initiative focuses on, doula co-ordinator Angie Cote said.
"This initiative is all about empowering women," Cote said. "Keeping the families together, and to help the women deal with their issues of trauma, their issues of whatever they’re going through in their lives. Just to help them reclaim their voice."
Doulas trained through the initiative are paired with expectant mothers who apply for the program. They help guide the women from the prenatal stage, to labour and delivery, all the way through postpartum. The doulas offer spiritual guidance and connections to practices based in Indigenous culture and teachings, such as smudges, placenta ceremonies and naming ceremonies for babies.
Since it started, the initiative has trained over 60 women as Indigenous doulas. But this isn’t enough to keep up with the increasing demand for their services, particularly in remote communities, Cote said.
Despite this growing interest in the initiative’s services and its mission to eventually lower the number of children in care in Manitoba — right now there are over 11,000, about 90 per cent of whom are Indigenous — there is still little hard evidence linking the initiative’s services to its goal of reducing child apprehension rates.
But several new projects aim to fill that research gap.
A pilot project in partnership with the doula initiative kicking off in April, for example, will follow 200 women using Indigenous doula services in Brandon, Winnipeg and Dauphin to determine how many kids stay out of foster care.
A separate research project looking at Indigenous doulas as a culturally-based health approach is tracking First Nations women in Nelson House, Cross Lake and Grand Rapids to explore the impact of the doula initiative for women in remote communities who travel for birth.
"It feels like this is the right way. This is the direction that we need to go to help ourselves, to help our women, to help our communities, to help our children," Cote said.
"It’s keeping the families together, it’s rebuilding communities, it’s helping the traditional keepers of our communities and families become whole again by being able to be a part of their children’s lives."
Last December, the Manitoba government created a legislative review committee to make recommendations to improve provincial child welfare legislation. The committee’s final report was released in September.
While the government isn’t obliged to act on the committee’s recommendations, the report proposed the province reduce its child welfare rate — the highest in the country — by first focusing on supporting struggling families through community programs.
The report did not make any specific recommendations about Indigenous doulas, but it did stress the critical role of community-based prevention and early intervention services in reducing the number of children in care in Manitoba.
"I think that we should be looking at anything and everything that works," said Progressive Conservative MLA Andrew Micklefield (Rossmere), chairman of the legislative review committee.
"If it works — if it’s part of the solution, if it can be demonstrated to help people, and to help children — then my recommendation would be that we look to acknowledge or partner with any organization that fits that kind of mandate."
The Manitoba Indigenous Doula Initiative is still relatively new — it started just over two years ago — and any concrete data linking it to reducing child apprehension rates won’t be available until either of its research projects are completed.
Whether the province decides to act on the committee’s recommendations, the doula initiative will continue trying to keep up with demand for its services, and women like Robinson-Desjarlais will continue anxiously awaiting their due dates.
"Indigenous elders, our women, tell us that when a child is born, the way in which they’re born is very significant," said Robinson-Desjarlais, one hand over her belly. "I’m praying that everything goes well for this one."
Caitlyn Gowriluk is a journalism student in Red River College’s creative communications program.