The Aboriginal community in Ontario's capital city has an important new health resource, the Seventh Generation Midwives of Toronto.
Led by Ojibway midwife Sara Wolfe, the practice was launched in January.
"We knew we'd be approved," said Wolfe about the proposal she and a group of other Toronto midwives submitted to the Government of Ontario.
The idea to develop a midwifery practice that focused on Aboriginal families had been in the works since the late 1990s, with the vision of two Toronto midwives. They ran into political hurdles, but the vision didn't fade. A group of up and coming midwives decided to grind away at it.
In 2002, Wolfe met fellow Aboriginal midwifery students Cheryllee Bourgeois and Ellen Blais at a gathering at Six Nations. They began to talk about the need for a practice within Toronto. They started the Toronto Aboriginal Midwives Initiative, and held community meetings and consultations to determine what the Native community wanted and needed.
"The community wanted their own practice that was sensitive to Aboriginal needs. These unique needs were not being addressed by other practices.
"Having this midwifery practice would also make it easier for Aboriginal families to get a midwife. In Toronto it is very hard to get a midwife."
Anyone who has used a midwife knows that these health providers fit better within the holistic health view compared to Western practitioners. Midwives provide care to pregnant women and their families, from the outset of pregnancy until six weeks postpartum.
Having culturally appropriate care is especially important for Aboriginal women within Toronto, due to a unique set of circumstances they face. Wolfe sees these issues as stemming from what she terms "urban isolation."
There are lots of resources and discussion about supporting women who are isolated on reserves and in Northern communities, but "we forget about 70 per cent of women who are living off reserve . . . the socio-economic issues are huge."
Aboriginal women also have to fight stereotypes. A visit from a social worker seems automatic if you identify yourself as Aboriginal.
"I've had clients scratch out their ethnic origin on their forms," sid Wolfe, because the clients are afraid of getting stereotyped. Wolfe said this is a concern for all Aboriginal women, regardless of background and family or economic situation.
The five midwives at Seventh Generation are advocating for change. One cultural practice not often recognized by the non-Native community is the tendency to host large gatherings right after a birth. "It takes a community to raise a child, and it starts from the first minute," Wolfe stated.
"This is hard at hospitals," Wolfe because of the respect given other patients' privacy. The midwives have written and distributed a manual to Sunnybrook Hospital, where they have birthing privileges. The manual teaches staff about what they can expect surrounding Aboriginal patients on the maternity ward.
Among the practice's clients, there is a lot of interest in cultural teachings, but not many people are requesting a smudge or Elders at birth. The midwives are hoping to increase access to birth teachings by creating a new drop-in program for families.
These families, including those who are not clients, can stop in on Fridays to receive care from midwives. They also can receive a healthy lunch and tap into cultural teachings. The practice is collecting and documenting cultural teachings from all of Canada's Aboriginal cultures. Their drop-in program focuses on building healthy families, using the Medicine Wheel as a guiding principle. They hope to have nutritionists, Elders, and other teachers come in to support the visitors.
Only in its ninth month of operation, the practice is undergoing many changes. It is moving from an office into a home environment in downtown Toronto. While the house is now undergoing renovations to make it more accessible, it will soon be a welcoming space. It s minutes from Sunnybrook Hospital, across from green space, and close to public transit and bike lanes.
The new space will eventually have a garden in which the four sacred medicines are grown. Elders will be able to use these for ceremonies.
The practice is planning to bring in Elders and grandmothers. "This is really important for women who are away from their home communities and missing that guidance and support," Sara Wolfe said. Ultimately, "We'd like to see a birth centre in Toronto."
While the practice grows, Wolfe is welcoming another addition into the community. Her first baby is due in September. She is confident that her labor will go well, and is planning on "being in the water." She will also have her midwives around her. "Having women who can empower you around you is very important."