‘It was powerful’: Cree babies are 1st to be born through Chisasibi midwifery program

Cayde and Ella Snowboy are the first two babies to be born under the Cree Board of Health and Social Services’ midwifery program.

They’re also cousins — their moms, Christina and Louisa Snowboy, are sisters.

They were pregnant at the same time, and signed up for midwifery care instead of the usual doctor’s visits during pregnancy and delivery.

“I was so happy that my family was there,” Christina said. “They supported me.”

The midwifery program, launched in September 2018, is part of efforts by the Cree health board to bring birthing back to the territory.

It gives Cree women with healthy pregnancies the choice to have their babies in Chisasibi, the largest Cree community in the region and the only one with a hospital, rather than down south.

“There were lots of people there while I was giving birth, lots of women,” said Christina.

“I was happy that I had lots of support.”

For Louisa, giving birth in Chisasibi meant being back in her own bed, with her healthy newborn and her older children, just four hours after giving birth — rather than having to stay for several weeks in a town almost 1,000 kilometres from home.

Louisa’s two older children were born in Val-d’Or. When midwifery services became available in her home community, she signed up right away.

Her positive experience helped convince her sister Christina, a first-time mom, to give birth in the community.
Cousins Cayde and Ella Snowboy were born in the spring. (CBHSSJB/T. Philiptchenko)

“[The birth] was indescribable. It was ecstatic. It was powerful,” said Jessyka Boulanger, the midwife who assisted Louisa.

“It was really like a circle of women supporting that life coming. It was so beautiful.”

Choosing where to give birth

Boulanger is one of four midwives in Chisasibi, and is also the head of midwifery services for the Cree Health Board. She travels by plane a lot, and often witnesses the moment when a mom steps off of a flight from the south and introduces her newborn to family for the first time, in an airport.

She says having the choice to give birth at home, with family close by, can be healing.

“The Cree, like many Indigenous communities, experienced trauma from residential schools, from colonization, separation of families. The systematic evacuation of women during pregnancy can re-open those traumas,” said Boulanger.

“Now, you can make that decision for yourself. You can decide where you feel the most secure, what has meaning for you, where you should be, and with whom. We’re able to give back that choice.”

When Louisa was pregnant, she and her family decided that her mom, Annie Sam, would be the one to welcome the baby. She says that having her mom catch the baby was deeply important to her.

“It’s wonderful that my two grandchildren were born here in our town,” said Annie Sam. “I wish more women would try to give birth here.”
Annie Sam, Louisa’s mother, Louisa and Jessyka Boulanger, head of midwifery services in Chisasibi, gaze at Ella. (CBHSSJB/T. Philiptchenko)

Traditional Cree birthing knowledge and practices are integral to the midwifery program. During pregnancy, women can learn from elders about naming rituals, ways of wrapping a baby, and how to treat rashes using traditional remedies.

The program is in high demand, with midwives now caring for almost half of Chisasibi pregnancies, or about 25 women. The community’s population is about 5,000 and growing quickly.

What was lost for so many years is coming back, said Boulanger.

“To be able to share that celebration of life, bring it back to the community, to the family, instead of [birth] being a separation or stress or worry. That it can be, once again, a joyful event.”

The Cree Health Board is planning to expand midwifery services to other communities in Eeyou Istchee, and to train Cree midwives. Birthing homes will be built in Waskaganish, Mistissini, and Chisasibi over the next few years.

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CBC | Health News