Charlene Williams-Kaludjak snuggles with her new baby Nowyah, named after her late mother, Nowyah Williams, a local nurse and midwife who was a driving force in establishing the Rankin Inlet Birthing Centre.

A visit to Rankin Inlet Birthing Centre highlights maternal health-care delivery

By Katie May
2014 Greg Clark Award Recipient

Rankin Inlet, Nunavut — I made a once-in-a-lifetime wish as I boarded my flight to Rankin Inlet: Please, please let me be seated next to a newborn baby. If, during the two-hour, seven-minute plane ride hundreds of metres above Hudson Bay, I could get to know a mother making the journey home from Winnipeg with her brand-new bundle of joy, maybe I could glean a small glimpse into what it takes to leave one's life behind to welcome a new one. Maybe I could begin to understand what it means to be born in a territory where babies die at a rate six times higher than in the rest of Canada. Maybe I could gain some insight into the significance of a renewed effort dedicated to bringing birth back to Nunavut, and envision what the future may hold for the newest generation of the fastest-growing population of Canadians.

But if I could do all that without even touching down in the Kivalliq region — home to the territory's oldest birthing centre — I wouldn't have needed the Greg Clark Award. For one thing, there were a handful of people aboard the cargo-carrying 737 en route to Rankin Inlet, and none of them was born yesterday. When I arrived in the hamlet of 2,245, there were about five expectant mothers due to give birth at any moment, two midwives on call 24/7, one hefty barge shipment of office furniture requiring assembly at the Rankin Inlet Birthing Centre, and, as it turned out, zero babies born during my time there.

The chance to spend a week delving into the complexities of maternal health-care delivery in a northern community that has laboured for the past 20 years to take banishment out of Nunavummiut's birthing experience seemed an opulent opportunity considering the daily deadline-distorted reality that stonewalls too many journalistic endeavours. The award afforded access to a part of Canada where travel costs are exorbitant — a fact that hints at underlying challenges of food security, poverty, cramped housing and social issues that, along with community resiliency, cultural strength and utmost importance of family, intertwine to form a backdrop against which babies are born at one of the highest birth rates in Canada.

I saw it was impossible to separate issues surrounding the health of pregnant women and babies from the overall health of the community. And vice versa. That my visit coincided with Rankin Inlet's Embrace Life Week — a calendar of community events underscoring the local significance of World Suicide Awareness Day — served as a stark reminder.

I wanted to get a better look at what encircles the beginning of life in Rankin Inlet, to start to see the whole picture of community-based birth come into focus. But I was wary, too, of flying in over a smoky dump fire on a drizzly Sunday afternoon, landing on the ground and purporting to have a sense of the place by the time I secured my ink-stained notebook and shiny copy of Birth on the Land within the seat pocket in front of me on Saturday morning. I've been quick to scorn egregious examples of "helicopter journalism," wherein reporters plop themselves into unfamiliar settings and proceed to the nearest soapbox of clueless authority. I didn't want to fall in line with a caricature of the hard-nosed southern journalist — one with which birthing centre staff have become quite fatigued — whose apparent sincerity peels like a used baggage tag at the end of a long trip.

"I saw it was impossible to separate issues surrounding the health of pregnant women and babies from the overall health of the community. And vice versa."

But I had time. Time to listen to whoever had time to share their story with me. Time to find out more. Time to worry the more I found out, the less I knew.

I talked to the midwives, taking in hurried happenings around the public health building where they keep their offices. There's a complement of four when fully staffed, together responsible for guiding women in the region through the spectrum of normal birth, from prescribing birth control to providing prenatal care throughout pregnancy and beyond, up to eight weeks postpartum.

When women decide to fly south as their due dates approach — and more than two decades since the conception of the community-based birthing centre, about a third still do, even in the absence of high-risk complications that would force them into an urban hospital — the midwives are there when they get back. A phone call away always, a personal social-life sacrifice toward the goal of healthy moms and babies.

For mothers-to-be who choose to labour at home, the Birthday Room awaits, decorated with Inuit art and handmade quilts, across town in the new health centre. There, families can convene and leave together a few hours after the baby is born. They have a choice that hasn't always existed.

I talked to women who stayed and to women who left. I took in their stories of loneliness, of comfort, of fear, of satisfaction, of disappointment, of love. Some were old enough to recall giving birth in igloos or in tents on the land. Some were too young to remember a time before birthing centre checkups became the norm. Some women emphasized stronger bonds they felt with sons and daughters born close to home, and some described struggling to breastfeed a screaming newborn while surrounded by strangers. Women told me they witnessed the birth of their adopted child, or had wrestled with guilt over giving up their baby after caring for them all the way back to their community.

I listened as a teenage soon-to-be mom wondered if she'd ruined her future, if she'd ever go to college. I watched as a couple who had suffered two previous miscarriages heard their baby's fetal heartbeat for the first time. These women's stories compel me to become a journalist worthy of telling them, the kind who can articulate for all Canadians the sense of place Rankin Inlet residents have laboured to claim as their own.

Read Katie May's story Birth in a Northern Nation in the Winnipeg Free Press.

To read more about the Greg Clark Award, visit the award page. The award will begin accepting applications in early 2015.
 

The Canadian Journalism Foundation would like to thank

for their generous support of the 2014 Greg Clark Award.