Today Indigenous midwives are re-constructing the central role they have played in their communities since time immemorial.
With barely a pregnant pause between the announcement of provincial funding and the birth of the Toronto Birth Centre, Seventh Generation Midwives of Toronto (SGMT), an Indigenous grounded midwifery clinic, and their partners gave excited community members a sneak peek at the new digs a couple of weeks before it officially opened for business on Friday January 31st, 2014. With a slew of media cameras, and Health Minister Deb Matthews among some of the VIPs in attendance, there was quite a buzz as guests caught a glimpse of the Birth Centre. Nestled in Regent Park amidst the revitalization project, the centre offers a health facility designed to include under-served women and teens from Indigenous, immigrant, LGBTQ (Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Queer), and refugee backgrounds from in and around Toronto.
Until the opening of the Birth Centre, expectant mothers in Toronto had two options for delivery: at home or in a hospital. Hospitals are over-crowded, and with the rate of cesarean births being so high, many women who use the services of a midwife prefer to avoid giving birth in a hospital. SGMT co-founder Ellen Blais commented, “This will offer a third option to women who do not want to give birth in a hospital, but who for reasons like safety or inadequate housing, may also not want to give birth at home.”
The highly anticipated opening of the Centre happened in record time; especially considering the bureaucracy associated with large scale development projects. Co-lead SGMT midwife Sara Wolfe points out that, “There were multiple layers of groups and organizations coordinating something that had never been done before to make this process happen. It took much less time than it typically does to get a new program off the ground.” Then Premier Dalton McGuinty announced in March 2012, they would fund two pilot Birth Centres in Ontario (Toronto and Ottawa) according to Wolfe, “the application was started in June, submitted in September (2012) and we were notified in early November that we would go ahead. Now here we are, opening 13 months later.”
Although it was a quick turnaround between the planning and building stages of the Centre, the midwives at SGMT have envisioned and worked relentlessly for this moment for a long time. Since 2011, they have been actively researching and consulting members of the Aboriginal community and their allies, in order to establish a birthing space grounded within the Indigenous community, centralizing Indigenous knowledge and birth practices and open to all families. Their vision is part of a larger shift across the country in which Indigenous midwifery is experiencing revitalization. Today Indigenous midwives are re-constructing the central role they have played in their communities since time immemorial. Their work demonstrates that Indigenous frameworks of governance and approaches to research are effective when put into action. The result is increased access to quality care, which in turn leads to more positive birth experiences and healing from the negative impacts of colonization in both Indigenous and allied communities.
The midwives inserted immense intention and detail into the designing of the Birth Centre. If it weren’t for the understated medical cupboards, the modern birthing rooms could easily be mistaken for luxury hotel suites complete with deep birthing tubs, a fireplace panel and en suite full bathrooms. Beside the birthing rooms are comfortable seating areas and a full kitchen that welcomes extended family to be included in the birthing process. “Makes you want to have another!” was overheard from more than one mother. In each of the three birthing rooms, wallpaper prints of Métis artist Christi Belcourt’s Grandmother Teachings mural offers visual grounding for labouring mothers. The mural is just one of many ways the Centre is rooted in an Indigenous framework. Bringing in elements of nature such as fire, water, and earth, and welcoming extended family, Seventh Generation Midwives Toronto have integrated a holistic design for women who give birth at the Centre. The intent of the Centre is not only to provide an environment that encourages excellent clinical care, but also focuses on all aspects of wellbeing, from mental and physical health and comfort to spiritual and traditional practices surrounding labour and birth, including the use of traditional medicines and ceremonies.
With over 660 registered midwives in Ontario, 85 of whom will be registered at the Toronto Birth Centre, Minister of Health Deb Matthews expects that this pilot project will be a catalyst for more birthing centres throughout Ontario over the next few years. The Toronto Birth Centre will provide services for up to 450 births per year, and priority will go to those women who are all too often used to facing discrimination and racism within the health industry.