Every woman should have the autonomy to make decisions for herself and her children. But for many Indigenous communities, this hasn’t been the case.
As a baby, Ellen Blais was taken from her mother during the “sixties scoop” – a devastating, racist attempt to assimilate Indigenous children by removing them from their families and placing them in foster homes or with adoptive families. In Canada, thousands of Indigenous children have been wrongly taken from their parents by child welfare. Although Indigenous children only account for 7.7% of the child population, they make up more than half of all children in foster care.
Ellen Blais simply couldn’t stand by and keep watching it happen.
It was this removal from her birth mother that eventually spurred Ellen to become a midwife herself. “I developed the idea of wanting to be a midwife so that I could stand at the bedside,” Ellen says. “So that I could be there and advocate and support and so that the intervention of child welfare and this forced removal of children could stop.”
Ellen currently works for the Association of Ontario Midwives as their director of Indigenous Midwifery. Ellen explains that midwifery has always been a vital practice in Indigenous communities. But through the process of colonization, midwifery became medicalized, and practice was taken from Indigenous women. Ellen believes it’s vital for Indigenous women to remember their roots and honour these ancient traditions. “We’re reclaiming that important role in Indigenous communities,” Ellen says.
Currently, the system is not built to accommodate or support pregnant Indigenous women and mothers. Often, there is not an Indigenous midwifery present in a particular community, so Indigenous women will have to fly out to bigger cities or towns to deliver their babies. This can be an incredibly traumatic experience, especially considering the bias within the medical system towards women of colour, and the fact that Indigenous women are often alone, without their friends and family, in a completely foreign environment, to give birth.
The aim of Ellen and her associations at the Association of Ontario Midwives is to ensure that there is an Indigenous midwife present in every Indigenous community, so that mothers can feel safe and supported throughout the entirety of their pregnancy and delivery. When Ellen first began her work, there were only around four Indigenous Midwives practices in Ontario; there are now over ten.
Slowly but surely, Indigenous midwives are reclaiming their power and growing strong support systems for their communities. The Layton Legacy project is so honoured to name Ellen as the first ever winner of the Layton Indigenous Leadership Award – an award that we hope will continue to aid and draw attention to the crucial ongoing work being done by Indigenous activists.
“It makes sense to me that this award starts with birth,” Ellen says, “because we’re birthing the creation of the award and the birth of the babies in our community are going to lead to healthier outcomes.”
We’d like to thank Ellen and every Indigenous midwife who is doing their part to restore this essential practice to their communities.
If you’d like to nominate someone, or yourself, for the 2022 Layton Legacy Activism Award, you can do so here.