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Health (18-24)

In this Kanien’kehá:ka birth helpers collective, women are empowering each other

March 11, 2024

Group aims to transform their community through maternal support, traditional teachings

Ionkwaietisakhe Hemlock sits in a hospital bed following labour. Kanorarihtha Albany and Taionthahine Nicholas stand by her bedside holding the new baby.
Kanorarihtha Albany and Taionthahine Nicholas were birth helpers for Ionkwaietisakhe Hemlock on her fifth, sixth and seventh pregnacies. (Submitted by Ionkwaietisakhe Hemlock)

CBC Indigenous: Helping empower women is at the heart of what a collective of Kanien’kehá:ka birth helpers are doing in their community.

They’re called Konwati’shatstenhsherawi’s, which means “women are giving each other power” in Kanien’kéha, or the Mohawk language.

We’re communal people,” said Jody Jacobs, who is part of the collective which is based in Kahnawà:ke, south of Montreal.

“After colonization, our families sort of separated. As the generations have gone on, there are no longer many multi-generational homes and we’re all sort of nuclear.”

Jacobs is one of four co-instructors with the collective who are training a new cohort of birth helpers to provide non-medical maternal support and education to expecting parents and their families throughout pregnancy, labour, and postpartum.

She said the major difference between a standard doula training and what Konwati’shatstenhsherawi’s is doing is the incorporation of traditional Kanien’kehá:ka teachings and customs linked to maternal care.

A woman standing in front of a purple wall
Patricia Kahentanóron Gabriel from Kanesatake is among the 10 women in the new cohort of birth helpers being trained by Konwati’shatstenhsherawi’s. (Ka’nhehsí:io Deer/CBC)

Training, which started in August, takes place two evenings a week at the First Nations Regional Adult Education Center in Kahnawà:ke and will wrap at the end of the month.

“It’s super-fulfilling and it’s something that I’m really passionate about,” said Patricia Kahentanóron Gabriel, who is among the 10 participants in the program.

Gabriel, who is from Kanesatake, northwest of Montreal, works with the Kanesatake Health Center’s maternal child health department and had previously taken doula training.

“I’m seeing it in a different lens,” said Gabriel.

“When I first started it, I was like, OK, I’m a doula. But now I see it as my responsibility as a woman to help support other women.”

A group of women stand and sit together.
Konwati’shatstenhsherawi’s means ‘women are giving each other power’ in Kanien’kéha, or the Mohawk language. The collective is training 10 women as community birth helpers. (Ka’nhehsí:io Deer/CBC)

Konwati’shatstenhsherawi’s started in 2017 as a grassroots program. Instructor Lee Scott said Kahnawà:ke had a long history of mothers, grandmothers and aunties who took on the role of midwives. She hopes the program will help move the community back toward that.

“It feels like a dream come true,” said Scott.

“I really hope that they internalize more of who we are and why it’s important to be supporting women during birth. The best case scenario is not to have a solo birth, the best-case scenario is to have support.”

High demand for birth helpers

Kanorarihtha Albany and Taionthahine Nicholas took the training in 2017, and have been the most active birth helpers in the community in the last few years. 

They said many of the families they’ve worked with weren’t aware of their options, rights, or were hesitant to ask for help.

Four women sit in a row in a recreational area of the First Nations Regional Adult Education Centre.
Konwati’shatstenhsherawi’s co-instructors are Kanorarihtha Albany, Taionthahine Nicholas, Lee Scott and Jody Jacobs. (Ka’nhehsí:io Deer/CBC)

“They just go to the hospital thinking ‘Whatever the doctor tells me in this 15-minute window is what I have to abide by and listen to,'” said Albany. 

“They don’t know they can say no, or they don’t know they can ask questions.”

That was the case for Ionkwaietisakhe Hemlock, who had both women as her birth helpers on her fifth, sixth and seventh pregnancies.

“I remember people writing on Facebook, ‘You’re on your seventh or your fifth kid, why do you need a doula? You know what you’re doing but there was so much knowledge out there and every birth is different,'” said Hemlock, who is also a part of the latest cohort being trained.

“It was amazingly way different; I had a lot of support. I didn’t know I had a voice in there.”

A woman wearing a black shirt and beige shirt stands in front of a blue wall.
Ionkwaietisakhe Hemlock is one of 10 birth helpers being trained in the program. (Ka’nhehsí:io Deer/CBC)

Albany said the number of clients has been overwhelming and she is looking forward to having more women trained and helping.

“It feels good to know that there’s other women who are passionate about it, other women who are going to be there for the women in the community because the demand is so high,” she said.


Ka’nhehsí:io Deer, Journalist

Ka’nhehsí:io Deer is a Kanien’kehá:ka journalist from Kahnawà:ke, south of Montreal. She is currently a reporter with CBC Indigenous covering communities across Quebec.