CALGARY – Access to appropriate healthcare, specifically surrounding a woman’s reproductive choices, varies drastically between communities.
Indigenous women in Canada have faced unique problems throughout history when it comes to reproductive healthcare.
“When we go into a doctor’s office, we are not often asked the usual [pregnancy] questions, like, ‘What are you planning?’ It’s often questions like, ‘How are you raising your child? Are you working? Do you have an education? Where are you living? Are you a drug addict?'”
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Nicole Eshkakogan, Scientific Director of Awo Taan Healing Lodge Society, explained she, along with countless other Indigenous women, has experienced frustrating and degrading doctors appointments where she believes the conversations between patients and primary care providers are neither healthy nor productive.
“[We need to] make sure Indigenous women have access and control over their reproductive health. But, also, if they choose to have children, having the right to mother those children and care for those children.”
Birth alerts and coerced sterilization
Eshkakogan points to something known as a birth alert, where Children’s Services is notified when an Indigenous woman is pregnant. Mothers are then monitored very closely through their pregnancy.
“[Women] give birth in fear knowing that their baby may be apprehended before they can even breastfeed their baby for the first time,” said Eshkakogan.
More stories of moments-old newborns being seized are popping up, two recent cases garnering attention occurring in Kamloops and Winnipeg. In Kamloops, APTN reported an Indigenous couple had their first-ever baby and were elated. An hour and a half later, officers turned up at the hospital and took the newborn baby.
READ MORE: ‘Traumatic to witness a lack of empathy’ says mother of apprehended newborn
In a case out of Winnipeg, a woman had signed notarized papers authorizing her aunt to adopt the baby. Hours after the woman gave birth, Manitoba’s department of Child and Family Services arrived at the hospital to remove the newborn.
In this instance, the family went to court and the baby was eventually returned to the mother and her aunt.
WATCH: Outrage over seizure of newborn by CFS
Another issue Eshkakogan brings up is coerced sterilization which is still happening in Canada. Class-action lawsuits have been proposed in Saskatchewan and Alberta, and the Senate’s human rights committee has launched a study into coerced sterilization.
It was also flagged in the recently-released final report on the inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG).
Missing, murdered Indigenous women inquiry flags coerced sterilization
‘The door has widened’: senator hears of mounting sterilization concerns
Feds reject push to amend Criminal Code to outlaw forced sterilization
Indigenous women coerced into sterilization, claim says … What happens next?
Indigenous artist Wendy Walker says access to appropriate healthcare isn’t something that’s limited to reproductive health. She says when a family member suffered a heart attack at a surprisingly young age, nurses and doctors immediately assumed the patient was a drug addict.
“The nurses at the hospital were convinced that because of her age she had to be a hardcore drug user. She was told that she was a hardcore drug user. This woman has never used drugs in her life,” she explained.
“Assumptions are made about our women. If something doesn’t fit within their normal, then you must be this or that… We do face challenges within the system that are not the same as non-Indigenous women. We want that equality.”
What needs to change? Walker says, “The entire system.”
Both Walker and Eshkakogan say voices of Indigenous women need to be included and taken seriously.
“You need to take our voices into it–that’s the ‘what’ and that’s the ‘how’… They need to put policies in place with us at the table,” said Walker.
For more on reproductive rights in Canada, check out the page for the special series ‘Elephant in the Womb’.