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Health

Indigenous Infants in Canada Are More Likely to Die But a New Program Aims to Help That Grim Statistic

Indigenous infants are two to four times more likely to die than non-Indigenous infants in Canada, according to Dr. Janet Smylie, director of the Well Living House at St. Michael's Hospital. There are also more children in foster care now than there were at the height of residential schools.

“This is not OK. Why would it be — that this would happen when we have all these resources?” she asks.

And she's right — the numbers show that there is a need for change in Indigenous healthcare.

A new maternal healthcare program designed to bring better care to First Nations populations launched Thursday. The program’s researchers in Toronto have received a $2.6 million grant from Merck for Mothers.

The program, Kind Faces Sharing Places: An Action Research Project for Indigenous Families During and After Pregnancy and Birth, was created with partners including Waakebiness-Bryce Institute for Indigenous Health, Seventh Generation Midwives Toronto and Nishnawbe Homes.

"We believe [the partners] have designed a really unique project," Dr. Mary-Ann Etiebet, executive director of Merck for Mothers,  told CBC Toronto. "It's Indigenous-led, it has community and women's voices at the heart of it, it is a multi-disciplinary, multi-sectoral approach to deal with all the upstream drivers that eventually lead to poor maternal and infant health outcomes."

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This project aims to address some of the issues that exist in healthcare for Indigenous families, specifically relating to maternal and child health programs.

“Indigenous infants and their parents are still suffering from a lack of basic needs like housing, enough food, a safe home environment, and that’s because there is still an unequal social distribution of resources and there is still a lot of racism,” Smylie says.

What is unique about Kind Faces Sharing Places, according to Smylie, is that 70% of the funds will go to the community partners. The research partners, Waakebiness-Bryce Institute for Indigenous Health and Well Living House, will design, evaluate and support writeups, but the bulk of the money will be going to the Indigenous community.

The community will be in charge of supporting and sharing the information that comes out, helping to create a strong network for Indigenous families.

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The program, which will consist of a three-year study of 100 mothers and their families, will provide care led by Indigenous midwife Sara Wolfe.

The recruited participants will have access to mental healthcare providers, social service organizations, housing transition support, and traditional counseling and healing. There will also be the option for addiction treatments.

The program’s results will be assessed every year.

One issue the project will evaluate is the number children removed from their families by child protection agencies. According to Etiebet, one of the reasons Indigenous mothers don’t look for help is out of fear of having their children taken away.

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Smylie says she’s found that there is often a misunderstanding of how Indigenous people parent their children. “We’ve parented our kids from millennia,” she points out, “and we’re still here.”

Etiebet says the partners will be working with pregnant women to address some of the factors that put them at risk for having their children removed from their home.

Overall, this Indigenous-led program aims to improve healthcare available to Indigenous families and will hopefully bridge the gap that exists between care for Indigenous and non-Indigenous people.