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Training Indigenous doulas is ‘an act of reconciliation,’ says participant

CBC News with Martha Paynter 04 April 2019

A new program to train more Indigenous doulas is coming to Halifax later this month and will combine lessons on birth and breastfeeding with cultural practices like smudging.

“To have it through an Indigenous lens, that’s really important,” said participant Lisa Robinson. “It’s like an act of reconciliation.”

All 15 spots for the sessions hosted by the Mi’kmaq Child Development Centre filled up in mere minutes. There’s now a waiting list, and talk of holding another session soon.

A doula is a non-medical professional who assists women during pregnancy, labour and after birth. It’s a role women at the centre have been taking on for decades, even if they didn’t use the word.

“I feel like that’s going to allow us to be taken more seriously and to be able to give more support,” said Robinson, a mother of four who has been involved with the Mi’kmaq Child Development Centre for years.

She hopes becoming a certified doula will allow her to help other Mi’kmaw women in ways that go beyond typical labour support.

“What’s important to me is to try to start decolonizing the health-care systems,” she said. “We still need to use some of the technology and westernized ways, but really incorporate our own ways as well.”

While Halifax has a large doula community, there are few women of colour doing the work, according to Martha Paynter, chair of Women’s Wellness Within.

The organization, which helps pregnant women in prison, secured funding for the doula training.

“This course, and all of our doula training, is very flexible and responds to what the participants want,” said Paytner.

Women’s Wellness Within hosted a similar training session in Cape Breton last year, and plans to work with Promoting Leadership in Health for African Nova Scotians at Dalhousie University to increase the number of black doulas. 

Paynter said the training can be used in all kinds of ways.

“So maybe some people will become professionals and maybe some people will support other women at the Mi’kmaq Child Development Centre, and maybe some people will volunteer with us in the prisons and jails … all is valuable,” she said.

25 years of labour support

The Mi’kmaq Child Development Centre has been providing support to pregnant women and their families for more than 25 years.

Co-ordinator Lee Merrigan-Thomas said there’s a strong tradition in many Indigenous communities of women helping women through the fear and joy of childbirth.

“I think having people who are familiar with smudging in early labor or just a different knowledge base can be another variable that can help women through labor,” she said.

Merrigan-Thomas estimates she’s been part of some 20 births, and has had the joy of watching those kids grow up and become involved with programs at the centre.

“It’s a very powerful time in the First Nation community,” she said. “Everything is growing and expanding, and people are being educated in so many more fields so I think it’s just a fitting time that we look to grow this way.”

The doula training takes place at the Mi’kmaq Child Development Centre on April 25 and 26.