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Health (18-24)

Reclaiming body sovereignty: A Haíɫzaqv woman is planning the 1st birth in her home territory in 21 years

February 18, 2023
Steven Smith (Tłatła’łona̱m), left, and ‘Qátuw̓as are excited about being the first couple to give birth in Bella Bella, B.C., in 21 years. They hope to set an example for other Indigenous people around decolonizing birthing. Rhon Wilson

CBC News: Before her baby was even conceived, ‘Qátuw̓as knew she wanted to give birth in her Haíɫzaqv community of Waglisla (Bella Bella), on the east coast of Campbell Island in B.C.’s Central Coast region. “I was always taught that birth and death are inevitable, and part of sacred cycles of life — two of our greatest ceremonies,” Qátuw̓as said from the Kunsoot Wellness Centre, located on an island east of Bella Bella, about 15 minutes by boat.

“Ever since I was a little girl … I learned that our women would go into the forest and birth their babies against old growth cedar so that their children would be rooted and deep as old growth cedar.” Once she was pregnant, her resolve to live out her dream, and to have birthing viewed as a ceremony rather than a medical procedure was strengthened.

“As someone who’s bringing life into this world, it’s really special to be out here on the land where my ancestors used to birth and to feel the energy and also the peace and how it creates serotonin in the body,” said ‘Qátuw̓as, who is 41 weeks pregnant.

But not everyone shared her enthusiasm. “It was more in regards to fear,” she said. “Nobody wanted our baby to be hurt or me to be hurt in the birthing process.” There remains a lack of knowledge within her community and local hospital, she says.

Two women pose for a portrait on a wooden dock, next to a large body of water. One of the women is young, wearing red tights, a white T-shirt, a denim jacket and a red knitted headband. She is leaning against the wheelchair of the other, older woman, who is wearing a fuzzy blue jacket and a yellow toque, with a white blanket on her lap.
‘Qátuw̓as, right, is shown with her grandmother, Margaret Brown, on the pier in Bella Bella. Brown birthed six children in their B.C. community and encouraged ‘Qátuw̓as to stand her ground to have a ceremonial birth at home. (Jade Anderson)

“At one prenatal appointment, I was told that I would be making the wrong decision for myself and for my unborn child, basically, bad parenting,” she said. So her grandmother, who’s in her mid-80s, stepped in to support her choice and said: “I have birthed all six of my children in Bella Bella.”

Yet the hesitancy comes with the reality that it will be the first birth in Bella Bella in 21 years.

A right taken away

Many years ago, birthing centres across the province moved to larger towns and cities in an effort to centralize care. In the 1990s and early 2000s, there was a shift in how birthing services were delivered in B.C., according to Sarah Munro, assistant professor in the department of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of British Columbia.

“Previously, there had been smaller maternity services in rural and remote communities, usually staffed by internationally trained nurse midwives or by general practitioners that had surgical training,” Munro said. But many of them closed about 20 years ago.  “The consequence of that meant that many families had to be evacuated for pregnancy and travel to regional centres to give birth,” Munro said.

A pregnant woman wearing black tights, a green T-shirt and a black puffer jacket sits on the forest floor, her back leaned up against the trunk of a giant cedar tree.
‘Qátuw̓as has always dreamed of birthing a baby against an old growth cedar tree so her baby would be “rooted and deep as old growth cedar.” (Rhon Wilson)

That means that at around 36 weeks into a pregnancy, a woman must leave her community and stay in an unfamiliar city as she prepares to give birth. It’s something that can be traumatic for families — not just to leave their family behind, but to enter a space that is often unsafe for Indigenous people.

“Knowing that when Indigenous people access health care they often encounter racism,” said Danette Jubinville, who is of the Pasqua First Nation and a founding member of the ekw’í7tl Indigenous doula collective. She is also Qátuw̓as’ doula. Jubinville says leaving one’s land, language and family and giving birth in a foreign city can also be alienating.

A woman dressed all in black, including a puffy winter jacket, stands on the banks of a river, with trees in the background.
Danette Jubinville, of the Pasqua First Nation, is Qátuw̓as’s doula. (Danette Jubinville)

It’s something ‘Qátuw̓as, and her partner Steven Smith (Tłatła’łona̱m), were not willing to do — not just to stay close their family and community, but to ensure their baby is brought into the world knowing who they are. “One thing that I always think about is about reclaiming a lot of the ways that have been taken away from us through colonization,” said Smith, who is Kwakwaka’wakw. “When I heard ‘Qátuw̓as’s dream, I knew that that was something that I would support and that I was in alignment with.”

A smiling couple seated next to each other in a medical exam room poses for a photo. Together, they proudly display a strip of black and white sonogram photos.
‘Qátuw̓as and Smith were excited to share that they’ve been preparing for a birth in their remote community of Bella Bella, but were surprised to face pushback from medical professionals. (Jade Anderson)

Being in the community also means their baby will hear their Haíɫzaqvḷa language in utero. “And if we were evacuated out? Our baby wouldn’t have that same opportunity. It would be removed from them,” ‘Qátuw̓as said. With only a handful of speakers left, the significance is not lost on her. “That’s a right that was taken away from us through residential school and then I’m really blessed to have my grandmother who takes the time to teach me [our language],” she said.

‘Qátuw̓as’s doula believes that a person’s ability to choose where they have their baby is a birthright. “As an Indigenous birth worker and mother, I believe so wholeheartedly in their inherent rights to birth their baby where they choose to, and especially in their ancestral homelands and in their territory,” said Jubinville.

‘Qátuw̓as and Steven Smith are looking forward to welcoming their child into their home community, surrounded by family and friends, who, together with their birth support team, pray and sing with them every day as they await the birth. (Submitted by ‘Qátuw̓as)

A revolutionary birth

‘Qátuw̓as currently has five midwives, three of whom are Indigenous and two whom she calls “allied midwives,” who are non-Indigenous. She also has Jubinville. “I am very grateful to the midwives and those who who have come to Haíɫzaqv territory [to support this birth],” she said. She says there is currently no payment structure for rural and remote Indigenous communities to bring back birthing in their communities, but that stakeholders are having conversations to establish a strategy.

In a statement, B.C.’s Ministry of Health said several communities have recently “had services return using a low-risk midwifery model” and that several other communities “have been able to maintain services … in collaboration with nearby referral centres” with “24/7 access to specialized services including c-section capacity.” The ministry added it is “currently piloting alternative payment (APP) midwifery contracts to address maternity provider shortages at several rural and remote sites” including Hazelton, Haida Gwaii, Invermere, Salt Spring Island and Port Hardy.

As she readies to deliver, ‘Qátuw̓as says she hopes her birth experience in her own territory can set a precedent for other Indigenous parents. (Submitted by ‘Qátuw̓as)

“I have faith that it’s going to happen. And that’s that’s a big thing for me to say as an Indigenous person, to have faith in systems that have constantly failed me,” ‘Qátuw̓as said. She hopes her birth in her own territory can set a precedent for other Indigenous parents — something her doula agrees with. “It just feels really amazing to be a part of this story, which is so revolutionary in so many ways,” Jubinville said. “It’s a new thing, but it’s a new old thing.”

Despite the roadblocks, ‘Qátuw̓as says there’s been a shift in energy. “There are so many people who’ve been fighting for change within our communities — leaders, changemakers, light carriers,” Qátuw̓as said. “And I’m really just putting this story out to the world because I wanted it to be a good one and believe that Canada and B.C. will find it in their hearts to break the cycle of disconnecting Indigenous people.”

About the Author

Angela SterrittAngela Sterritt is an ​award-winning investigative journalist. She is the host of Land Back, a six-part CBC British Columbia original podcast that uncovers land theft and land reclamation in Canada. Sterritt is known for her impactful journalism on the tensions between Indigenous people and institutions in Canada. She is a proud member of the Gitxsan Nation.

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