Indigenous doulas to support First Nations women

First cohort of the Manitoba Indigenous Doulas Initiative – photo supplied

WINNIPEG, MB –  When a woman from Cross Lake First Nation is going to have a baby, she boards a bus often alone, and makes a journey to Winnipeg or Thompson. She leaves behind her family supports and may be away from her community, living in a boarding home in unfamiliar surroundings, for up to four weeks. This journey away from home to deliver is true for most Manitoba First Nations women from northern rural and remote communities. Being alone and unsupported creates unnecessary stress. It can create negative health consequences for both mom and baby such as anxiety, pre-term birth, low and high birth weights, and even infant death.

Now a new collaborative study, funded by a Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) grant of  $$688,500 over five years will be headed by The University of Winnipeg’s Dr. Jaime Cidro, (Associate Professor, Anthropology), to examine how the ongoing support of an Indigenous doula, based within the First Nation community, can help change this reality.

The project is a collaborative partnership between Cross Lake First Nation, the Manitoba Indigenous Doulas Initiative, Nanaandawegimig (First Nations Health and Social Secretariat of Manitoba), and University of Manitoba researchers Drs. Maureen Heaman and Josee Lavoie.

It is expected 60 women will participate. Wanda Phillips-Beck, the Primary Health Care Nurse Research Manager of Nanaandawegimig, describes this project as a good example of how research collaborations between University and community are now the way of the future, particularly in research involving First Nations. “In this age of Truth and Reconciliation, University-First Nations need to form collaborations for meaningful research, rebalancing the power dynamics. Our Traditional Doulas project is a partnership which forms new relationships for a shared understanding of the historical and ongoing challenges that First Nations people face, and what changes must occur to achieve First Nations health and wellness”.  

“Doulas can play a critically important role during pregnancy and labour and research shows us this support for a women’s pregnancy and respectful incorporation of cultural practices are essential to establishing and revitalizing the strong cultural connection for First Nations children and families,” says Dr. Cidro. “Our research hopes to demonstrate that there are marked improvements to the psychological, social and cultural experiences of women who must travel for birth with the support of a doula and we are excited that this team came together to undertake this pilot project.”

This project will deliver culturally-based doula training in Cross Lake, empowering women in the community to become prenatal/postpartum doulas. Pregnant women will receive the care of her community doula up until she is evacuated to Winnipeg to give birth. At that time she will be connected with an Indigenous doula in Winnipeg who will provide support while she’s in the city and during the birth. After the client gives birth, she will then return home and be re-connected with her community doula.

“Indigenous doulas will empower and support women and families while encouraging traditional approaches to healthy pregnancies, healthy sexuality, culturally-appropriate childbirth education, breastfeeding and parenting,” says Melissa Brown, Indigenous midwife, Manitoba Indigenous Doula Initiative Project Lead and research collaborator. “This is important in restoring the sacred bond between families that begins in the womb.”

The importance of culturally based knowledge and birthing is something that the community of Cross Lake has been working towards for a long time. “The return of birthing practices, nurturing the supports that will surround our young mothers and their children at home and in Winnipeg, has been a dream and a long struggle. This partnership will strengthen our connection to our ancestral knowledge as we bring heathy children into the world. We want to share what we will learn so this will benefit Indigenous women everywhere,” says Cathy Merrick, the Chief of Cross Lake.
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Related research by Dr. Jamie Cidro


Diane Poulin, Senior Communications Specialist, The University of Winnipeg

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