Nunatsiaq News
NEWS: Iqaluit September 12, 2018 - 1:10 pm

Racism at play in Indigenous health care, child welfare: MMIWG hearing

Medical expert on Indigenous health speaks on maternal trauma

Medical expert Janet Smylie, who is Cree-Métis, speaks as an expert on Indigenous health and well-being during hearings by the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls in Iqaluit on Tuesday, Sept. 11. (PHOTO BY BETH BROWN)
Medical expert Janet Smylie, who is Cree-Métis, speaks as an expert on Indigenous health and well-being during hearings by the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls in Iqaluit on Tuesday, Sept. 11. (PHOTO BY BETH BROWN)

Janet Smylie recalls being shocked by one nurse’s inability to “walk in someone else’s shoes or moccasins” when, as a family physician, she was called on to speak with her upset patient—an Indigenous mother whose child had been apprehended.

It was after hours at the hospital and the woman had been put into a mixed room with three breastfeeding mothers. Smylie’s patient was still breastfeeding when her own child had been taken.

“Imagine how it would make you feel to have your baby apprehended after hours and to be in a mixed room with three other mothers who were breastfeeding their infants,” said Smylie, who added that the woman was also told by a social worker that she had an “anger management problem.”

The Cree-Métis physician shared this story during cross-examination at a panel hearing for the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls in Iqaluit on Tuesday, Sept. 11.

Fact-finding hearings for the federal inquiry are ongoing this week, after starting Monday at the Frobisher Inn.

Inquiry commissioners are hearing from experts, elders and knowledge holders who are describing the socio-economic impacts of colonial violence on Indigenous peoples in Canada.

Smylie was the sole witness in the second of three panels that will make up the four-day hearing. In a first panel, three Iqaluit residents shared Inuit perspectives on colonial violence.

Twenty-five years into her medical career, Smylie said she often sees systemic racism in Canada’s health care system.

And when it comes to child apprehension, it’s common for parents to have more than one child apprehended if they’re already in the system, Smylie told one cross-examiner.

“When one child is apprehended, it seems to be a black mark,” she said.

As such, the physician has worked to provide clinics for Indigenous women who are afraid to access prenatal care for fear of being approached by child welfare.

In her testimony, Smylie also talked about an Indigenous midwifery program as an example of what she called a “strength-based” approach to creating a culturally secure health-care environment.

She said that’s an example of how Indigenous communities can have agency over their own health care.

“It’s empowering for communities to be able to support, demonstrate and govern their own health promotion,” she said.

Breaking bread to end violence

But there are even simpler ways for families and communities to foster resiliency and well-being, Smylie said, and that’s through cultural practices and ceremonies, big and small.

“Making a meal can be a ceremony. Making bread can be a ceremony,” she said, explaining that community gathering, ritual and ceremony help people build a “body of memories” they can turn to in times of hardship.

“It seems simple until you’ve lost it,” Smylie said. “If we could nurture [ceremony], it would be an important strength-based approach at ending violence against Inuit, First Nations and Métis women and girls.”

An uneven playing field

Smylie is one of the lead authors in a report titled, First Peoples, Second Class Treatment, which examines the role racism has played in the health and wellness of Indigenous Canadians.

She said you can’t assess the wellness of a person or group without first identifying any major “well-being disruptors” they might face.

“If it costs $10 to buy lettuce, that’s a disruptor. If you have overcrowded housing, that causes disruption,” she said, adding that it’s hard to live in harmony if you’re hungry.

Cross-examination of Smylie’s testimony—by lawyers representing Indigenous organizations—will continue today. A third panel on decolonizing practices will start up in the afternoon.

Iqaluit’s hearings for the MMIWG inquiry are meant to hone in on expert and institutional knowledge. A February community hearing held in Rankin Inlet heard testimonies from the survivors of violence and their families.

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(9) Comments:

#1. Posted by Putuguk on September 12, 2018

I will take a guess at how a breast feeding mother might feel after having their infant apprehended, and then having to share the company of other breastfeeding mothers.

Probably a whole lot better than her baby if left in her care.

From the Child and Family Services Act ” A child needs protection where the child has suffered physical harm inflicted by the child’s parent or caused by the parent’s unwillingness or inability to care and provide for or supervise and protect the child adequately”.

If the system did not have the capacity or processes in place to save the mother’s feelings, the system did save her infant from impending harm.

We cannot be under any illusions knowing what we know from things like Gladue Reports that read like broken records about the upbringing some are subjected to.

How will the cycle of violence ever be broken without interventions that stop the trauma of one generation being inflicted on the next?

#2. Posted by Putugu on September 13, 2018

There is a lot of racism in Canada, much more then what people might think, Inthink Canadians are good people but we hide the racism very well, it’s hidden and when it comes out made to be seen less as possible, more for embarrassment and to keep face.

I think we need to bring this out more and call it out when it happens, it will not change and the cycle will continue. There is so much racism in Canada it’s not the same as back in the 50-60s but it’s there, just masked in a different way.

#3. Posted by Pootoogook on September 13, 2018

I am of two minds;  if a child is to be protected from their parents who drink, pass out and neglect their basic needs, then apprehend them.
If parents can be worked with to sober up and go to Treatment and agree to be highly monitored, for the child’s sake, then give them that opportunity.

#4. Posted by Soothsayer on September 13, 2018

#3 This is how many Inuit view us ‘outsiders’. If we have a good job they believe we were favoured over them because of systemic racism that plots against them.

Among these type of people there is very little understanding as to what it takes to become a qualified professional.

Please see the Dunning-Kruger effect: a cognitive bias in which people of low ability have illusory superiority and mistakenly assess their cognitive ability as greater than it is.

Sound familiar?

#5. Posted by Putugu on September 13, 2018

#5 if its true at all what you say in general about Inuit, how did it get to this point? Why is it at this point? How can it be fixed?

#6. Posted by Soothsayer on September 13, 2018


Many Inuit hold to a profound mythos that suggests they should be, and are, by natural birthright, the true holders of knowledge and power in their own land.

This might be morally compelling, but it lacks a roadmap to understanding and achieving true power within a modern society.

All this has been abetted by a dysfunctional cabal of post-modern and post-colonial academics that support the notion that knowledge itself is fragmented, relative, uncertain, and local; or worse, that ‘knowledge’ is merely a tool of power.

The knowledge of ‘outsiders’ therefore, is understood as a colonial tool for inculcating the values of an alien culture. So this knowledge is categorically rejected.
The result; the abstraction we call an elder is one qualified to practice mental health psychology. The hunter, in the abstract, is as knowledgeable as a biologist… and on it goes.
None of this is real.

#7. Posted by What happened? on September 14, 2018

When I read comment # 3 last night it was about a black person saying
they had encountered racism in Nunavut from Inuit people.
Why has that comment been deleted, and replaced by a completely
different comment? Because the person is black ?
Comment #4 from Soothsayer actually answering the original comment
at #3.

#8. Posted by Rainbow, Iqaluit. on September 15, 2018

Regardless of what Nunatsiaq News chooses to print or not print, there
is a lot of racism , from all kinds of people in Nunavut !!
  We didn’t start the fire, always burning since the world been turning.

#9. Posted by What gives? on September 17, 2018

#7 I was wondering the same thing.

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