A Montreal hospital desires giving start removed from dwelling to be safer for Indigenous moms

Last summer, Paasa Lemire was getting ready to give birth to her first child in Kuujjuaq, Quebec.

Lemire, who is now 24, was looking forward to having the life-changing experience in the comfort of her own home, surrounded by her family and her partner, Alec Saunders.

But after Lemire developed preeclampsia, a pregnancy complication that can cause high blood pressure and damage to kidneys and other organs, it meant one of her greatest fears would be coming true.

She would have to fly 1,400 kilometers south to Montreal to deliver her baby at the McGill University Health Center (MUHC) because of the high-risk nature of the birth.

“It was extremely difficult for me having to be flown down to Montreal for my birth,” Lemire wrote in a correspondence with Sudha Krishnan, the host of CBC Montreal’s 11 pm TV newscast. (A phone or internet connection strong enough for an interview wasn’t possible where Lemire was located.)

Lemire was accompanied by Saunders, her mother and her best friend, but the hospital setting in a city so far from home was unsettling. Doctors and nurses were nice but very busy and she and Saunders often had to wait before appointments.

“The time I got pregnant, COVID was still very much around so I did try my best to understand that the necessities I need may not be fully there, but I still fought for it,” Lemire said, noting she understands and speaks French and English in addition to her mother tongue, Inuktitut, which made things easier, but may not be the case for every mother.

Lemire is now one of the two Indigenous mothers consulting for a project by the MUHC that aims to create a more culturally safe environment for Inuit and Cree mothers, who are airlifted from their home communities to give birth.

The MUHC says an average of 315 indigenous women in those situations must fly to the Montreal hospital every year.

Following the death of Joyce Echaquan, the 37-year-old Atikamekw woman who died in September 2020 after filming nursing staff calling her derogatory names as she screamed in distress, the Atikamekw Nation and the Atikamekw Council of Manawan created Joyce’s Principle.

The document aims to guide governments make when it comes making decisions about health and social services to guarantee that indigenous people have equitable access, without discrimination.

Jennifer Pepin is the nurse manager of the MUHC Birthing Center and Maternity Unit. (Dave St-Amant/CBC)

As a result of the document, the MUHC says it is making several changes at its birthing center this year, such as allowing more visitors, freeing up fridges, freezers and kettles so families can bring traditional foods, and making more space for traditional practices.

It is also looking into installing Cree and Inuit art in the hospital rooms.

“We’re looking at, how can we include elders as a presence in the delivery room, how can we support (the women) in their cultural practices that they may not get to do because they’re far from home,” said Jennifer Pepin, nurse manager of the MUHC birthing center and maternity unit.

Staff members at the center will also undergo cultural safety training. Two Inuit midwives and a Cree physician will participate in the development of the training program.

Other measures include facilitating birth bundles, smudging and access to the placenta.

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