Empowering Women and Educating Families to Keep Communities Together

In June, the Southern First Nations Network of Care, located in Winnipeg (Manitoba, Canada) officially announced the launch of a historic initiative titled Restoring the Sacred Bond.

Why is this a historic undertaking, you may ask? The shocking figures of Indigenous infants and children going into care in North America, and more specifically in Canada, really came to light when a video went viral on Facebook in January 2019, capturing the attention of people all over the world. The unsettling shows a newborn baby being apprehended from a First Nations woman in a Winnipeg hospital. The baby girl was just two days old when she was taken by Child and Family Service (CFS) workers in the presence of police officers. While SAY is unable to comment about the outcomes of that particular incident, one thing is clear—incidents like this happen all too often.

The number of Indigenous children in care in Canada is staggering. According to the Government of Canada, 52.2% of children aged 0-14 in foster care are Indigenous. Restoring the Sacred Bond aims to significantly reduce that number in Manitoba by matching Indigenous birth helpers with Indigenous mothers who are at risk of having their infant apprehended and placed into the child welfare system.

The two-year pilot project is the result of a partnership between the Southern First Nations Network of Care (SFNNC) and the Government of Manitoba in delivering the province’s first-ever Social Impact Bond (SIB).

“We want to help strengthen the bond between mothers and children to reduce the number of infants apprehended into the child welfare system,” announced families minister Heather Stefanson in a press release earlier this year. “Social impact bonds are an innovative way for government to work together with the private sector and community groups to find new solutions to pressing social challenges.”

SIBs encourage partnerships between the government, the private sector and community groups to achieve positive outcomes. The province worked with leading Canadian social finance consultant MaRS Centre for Impact Investing to create its SIB strategy and establish a $3 million budget for investor repayment.

“The Southern Network and Manitoba have a long history of working together on child welfare in the province,” said Adam Jagelewski, executive lead of the MaRS Centre for Impact Investing. “This new model puts mothers and their needs first, reframing the partnership to customize supports and incentivize results. It’s fitting that the landmark SIB is an Indigenous- designed and led program, a made-in-Manitoba partnership that holds significant potential.”

Thanks to funding from eight investors, Restoring the Sacred Bond will begin matching expectant mothers with birth helpers this fall. While certain investors wish to remain anonymous, SAY has been given permission to recognize the Winnipeg Foundation as one of the leading investors with a $1-million contribution. Other investors include the McConnell Foundation, C.P. Loewen Family Foundation, the Lawson Foundation, the Inspirit Foundation and the Children’s Aid Foundation of Canada.

We are honoured to have been chosen to deliver the programming for the Restoring the Sacred Bond Initiative. Because we believe that the health of our communities starts with our women as they move through the birth cycle, we believe this Initiative will have a positive effect on the wellness of First Nations communities for generations to follow.

– Board of Directors, Wiijii’idiwag Ikwewag

This brilliant pilot project has been building momentum for a few years and is based on the success of the Manitoba Indigenous Doula Initiative delivered by Wiijii’idiwag Ikwewag. Restoring the Sacred Bond, led by SFNNC and Wiijii’idiwag Ikwewag, seeks to improve the bond between mother and child, increase maternal and child health, build on the strengths of families and increase cultural identity. With increased access to Indigenous birth helpers, the program will no doubt result in positive social outcomes in Manitoba’s First Nations communities.

How does it work? The program has developed a referral process which enables agencies to refer expecting parents who may not have the resources needed to effectively parent their babies to Wiijii’idiwag Ikwewag, who then matches them to a Birth Helper. The Indigenous birth helper is much like a doula, but with a longer term commitment to the family. The birth helpers are Indigenous women trained to help with childbirth and early care, and through the program, they will provide support to mothers throughout their pregnancies, labours and deliveries and for up to one year after the birth of their children.

Jolene Mercer, executive director of Wiijii’idiwag Ikwewag, further explains that the program is truly a team effort. The partnership with the SFNNC means they are able to connect a caseworker with the family, so that they understand the parameters of the program and the processes in place to help them be successful. “The program is designed so that families have the information and resources required to make informed decisions and develop a plan that addresses the concerns brought forth by CFS. It’s important for mothers—families—to understand what resources they have access to and what is expected of them so that they can successfully parent their child,” Mercer explained. “We make sure they have all the information they need, and the support they require, to set goals and make good parenting choices.”

We believe the health of our First Nations communities starts with the sacred bond between mother and child, from the early stages of pregnancy. We further believe that by strengthening this bond through traditional healing and relevant support services, we will achieve our goals of keeping First Nations children within their family units.

– Tara L. Petti, CEO, Southern Network

Part of the process is reconnecting mothers with their traditional cultural practices and strengthening their support networks. “To restore the teachings, values, and rites of passage—the traditions that may have been lost due to the significant trauma our people have gone through,” said Tara Petti, CEO of the SFNNC. “We want to empower mothers and families to make decisions about the future of their families.”

“The soul of sovereignty, taking back control of our lives, lies in birthing, and everything before and after it,” said Grand Chief Jerry Daniels, Southern Chiefs Organization. “Restoring the Sacred Bond is very important first step towards this end.”

Over the two year period, the Restoring the Sacred Bond Initiative is expected to support and empower up to 200 expectant mothers who are considered at-risk. Program success will be measured on reduced days in care—at various levels—of children in the program compared to children outside the program.

For more information about Restoring the Sacred Bond, visit www.restoringthesacredbond.ca.