I pressed my cell phone into the side of my cheek as the midwives gently whispered and laughed on the other side of the line; their voices transported me to their ‘maternity unit’ in Inukjuak, some 900 miles north from my home in Montreal, Quebec. Barred by COVID-19 restrictions from traveling to report on the Inuit midwifery training program in Nunavik, I worried that the circumstances would stop me from effectively telling their story. During our conversation, however, I realized that the midwives’ strength and devotion to their community throughout the pandemic was the story to tell.
The Inuulitsivik midwifery program trains and certifies Inuit women to provide prenatal care and deliver low-risk women in three communities in Nunavik, northern Quebec. In a health care system which relies on visiting health care workers and flying patients to receive care in southern cities, the COVID-19 pandemic revealed the weaknesses of Nunavik’s health care system, but also the strength of its people.
For the midwives, working under difficult circumstances was the norm, not the exception.
In that call, I learned that beyond delivering babies, the midwives leverage their esteemed position in the community to promote healthy behaviours, including improved nutrition, exclusive breastfeeding, and diabetes prevention. However, the midwives realized that no matter how convincingly they advocated for good nutrition, the exorbitant prices of food in Nunavik meant that many of their clients could not afford to buy healthy groceries.
“The problem is that unhealthy foods are less expensive than the healthy foods, so it’s easier to buy soda pop than $9 of blueberries,” Kimberly Moorhouse, a midwife in Inukjuak, says.
The midwives’ resourcefulness leads them to develop nutritional guidelines that are specific to their community. Moorhouse explains, “We are teaching people to go back to traditional ways of eating that are free of cost and healthy, such as picking berries or eating wild caribou, fish, or beluga.”
Later, I waited on the phone as an operator told me that the number I was calling was no longer in service. In the three days since my interview with a midwife in Salluit, Nunavik, was unexpectedly cut-off, I had tried to email her (bounced), sent a Facebook message (to someone else with the same name), and placed numerous phone calls trying to connect again with her.
Ironically, before the call was disconnected, the midwife had been describing the challenges to the midwifery training programs in Nunavik—notably, the spotty phone and internet service. In reporting from a distance, I gained a deeper appreciation for the midwives’ resilience despite working with unreliable infrastructure. Once I finally reached her, she graciously agreed to pick up where we left off and finished our interview on the spot.
It should come as no surprise that when the COVID-19 pandemic and its resulting restrictions and staff shortages threatened the provision of health care in Nunavik, the midwives responded with the same determination, flexibility, and devotion to their community that they’ve cultivated for years. The pandemic changed the course of my reporting, but served as the perfect example of the strength and spirit of the Inuulitsivik midwives.