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


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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