McMurray Métis birth workers make Bears' Lair pitch for mobile perinatal clinic

Ihkapaskwa Collective began in 2022 to meet Indigenous families’ demands for midwifery and family supports. They were flooded with clients.

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Two Fort McMurray birth workers hope to secure funding for a mobile perinatal clinic to help reach the rural and Indigenous communities of the Fort McMurray Wood Buffalo region.

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Maddie Amyotte and Sheena Bradley, both Cree-Metis with McMurray Metis, will make their pitch on a July 5 episode of Bears’ Lair, an Indigenous spin on Dragons’ Den that airs on APTN.

Amyotte and Bradley are the founders of Ihkapaskwa Collective, a Cree word for fireweed. Amyotte is a registered nurse and midwife. Bradley is a birth worker who uses her skills as a traditional herbalist to prescribe locally harvested plant medicines.

The difference between traditional midwifery and Ihkapaskwa Collective is Amyotte and Bradley offer cultural supports for Indigenous families. Many traditional birth celebrations practiced by Indigenous families were once forbidden or discouraged.

“There’s been traditional midwives in our culture since the beginning of time,” Bradley said in a 2021 interview with Fort McMurray Today. “Being able to give birth surrounded by community and support can help rebuild our knowledge after the criminalization of our traditional practices and attempted genocide of our nations.”

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Ihkapaskwa Collective began in 2022 to meet Indigenous families’ growing demands for midwifery and family supports, particularly in the rural communities outside Fort McMurray. They were flooded with clients during that first year.

Birth rates in Fort McMurray are strong but have dropped in recent years following economic uncertainty and the 2016 Horse River Wildfire. Births in rural areas, however, are booming. Every week, the non-profit is in one of the region’s Indigenous communities.

“A lot of people are just looking for an auntie they can call and reach out to if they have concerns or if they need help accessing different resources within the community,” said Amyotte in an interview. “We really try to bridge that gap so they don’t have to go shopping around all these different organizations to find what they need.”

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Limited supports available for Indigenous families in rural areas

Intake begins with a review of the living situation the baby will be born into. Housing, income and food security are reviewed. Amyotte says most clients have problems in at least one of these issues, particularly housing stability.

Once these issues are resolved, the family is paired with an Indigenous elder for cultural, emotional or spiritual support. As much prenatal care as possible is done at home or in the community to limit travel to Fort McMurray.

Helping families meet these issues allows them to focus on cultural ceremonies and traditions. The program is designed to follow the baby for up to six years to help with important milestones and early needs.

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“We found people weren’t able to focus on making it to appointments and really being invested in their pregnancy because they were struggling to meet their basic needs elsewhere,” said Amyotte. “The biggest thing we realized is there wasn’t a safe space out in the communities for people to access health care and cultural support.”

The participants in Bears’ Lair can’t reveal how their pitch went until the episode airs, but Amyotte said she enjoyed the experience.

“It helped us become more comfortable sharing our story, with public speaking and with being in front of the camera,” she said. “We got our message out. The judges and everybody seemed to really value the work we were doing and saw the importance of it.”

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