Wanted: Health Care That Works For Indigenous Women

Illustration by Amika Cooper/@BLACKPOWERBARBIE

Illustration by Amika Cooper/@BLACKPOWERBARBIE

By Joy Henderson

I almost got kicked out of a prenatal class once. It started when the instructor, a doula, started recounting how “tribal women” in Africa give birth by the sea, and I internally winced at the anecdote. The story was one of those typical one-with-nature birth stories that white doulas love to tell about black- and brown-skinned women to convince white parents that all they need to give birth naturally are happy thoughts—and a doula. As she reached the apex of her story, which featured women giving birth in the water and dolphins swimming in to greet the new babies, one of the fathers blurted out: “Do the dolphins eat the babies?” 

I laughed for the next ten minutes. His comment allowed me release at the absurdity of being lectured by a white woman who had never been to Africa about how, apparently, an entire continent of diverse women give birth. 

The instructor was good-natured for the first minute, then became increasingly exasperated. She suggested I remove myself to “calm down,” and blamed pregnancy hormones for my lack of control. 

I never told her the real reason why I was laughing so hard. I knew, as the only person of colour in a room of upper-middle-class white people, how the scenario would likely end: fragility and white tears, likely accompanied by the tokenizing of two people of colour she calls friends to prove how enlightened and inclusive she is, and me being cast as that angry and hormonal Indigenous person who made the instructor cry.

The incident reminded me that Canadians are never really interested in Indigenous women’s experiences around our reproductive system unless these stories about our child-birthing traditions or views on menstruation can be romanticized or cast as exotic. That way, they can perpetuate the trope of the noble savage or find some way to commodify our traditions for their gain, all the while ignoring the barriers their health-care systems have put in place to prevent Indigenous people from having equal access.

The fact is, no one wants to hear my story as a young Indigenous woman visiting my local community health centre, trying to access birth control to minimize horrendous periods. Not only did the doctor not believe me and deny my request, but she thought it appropriate to tell me I should not spread my legs for the first man that comes along. 

No one wants to know about how, when I was 30 years old and pregnant with my third child, I was paired with a white midwife who treated me as an inconvenience to the point where I tearfully begged for the secondary midwife—a warm and attentive woman of colour—to become my primary. Again, request denied. (So much for the client-centred experience I’d hoped for.)

How about the story of the lactation consultant who, when I had problems breastfeeding, accused me of being lazy, and how that contributed to my post-partum depression. Or the white ladies at my local La Leche League breastfeeding support group who either excluded or pitied me. Or the many nurses and doctors who, while treating me during my pregnancies, asked me if I knew who the father was. Apparently, my wedding ring did not afford me the luxury of people assuming I was married. 

Then there’s the time an ultrasound technician performed a rough vaginal ultrasound after an ovarian cyst I had ruptured. Probably influenced by the young blonde doctor who had earlier dismissed my suffering as me “just trying to get drugs,” this technician rudely disregarded my pain. It is only because of my white in-laws, who brought me to the hospital doubled over in agony, that I even got care that day. The next doctor who treated me did so kindly—but she also insisted on running tests for STIs and gave me a prescription to treat chlamydia, “just in case.”

Most recently, I was at my family doctor’s clinic, worried by some irregular bleeding. The doctor filling in for my own insisted on giving me a lecture about STIs and promiscuity, despite me being clear that I was monogamous and, due to my job as a child and youth worker, I was well-versed on the subject. It’s not that I have a problem with promiscuity, but anytime I go into my walk-in for a UTI, strep throat or a hangnail, I somehow wind up on the business end of a lecture on STIs. But when society hyper-sexualizes Indigenous women from an early age, I really should not be surprised. Turns out the irregular bleeding is due to perimenopause.

I wish I could share a different story of my reproductive life, one filled with love and ancient wisdom. But like the stories of many Indigenous women, mine reflects Canada’s ongoing legacy of colonization. It’s a story in which stereotypes follow us from our first period until we die, affecting even the most intimate areas of our lives. While Indigenous peoples are working to remove these barriers, it is important that all Canadians take part in deconstructing colonialism at every level to improve health care and avoid perpetuating further harm. My first forty years have been marked by having to fight for equal access to health care, and I fear what awaits me as I continue to age. 

Joy Henderson is a mother, a child and youth worker and an aspiring writer. You can follow her largely social-justice-based tweets and opinions @Joyhenderson78