Andrea Fergusson and Brendan Tom sit side-by-side on their bed in the Tla-o-qui-aht village of Opitsaht, in the same house where Fergusson gave birth to their youngest son, Felix. He was the first baby to be born in the village in over 50 years.
The family shares their birth story to encourage others to revitalize traditional teachings within reproductive health, understand the natural birthing process, and consider birthing at home.
“You can work with big energy like birthing energy,” Fergusson says, eyes lit up. “It’s life-and-death energy, lightning-and-thunder energy, and it’s very scary if you’re not aware that it’s part of life.”
Fergusson wants birthing parents to listen to their bodies and trust in this natural process, she says.
She believes that people have been taught to fear “big energy” within their bodies, such as birth energy, and fight against it. Accepting, understanding, and working with the fear and uncertainty of pregnancy and childbirth is part of the process, she says.
Fergusson explains that she has been discouraged by doctors who have tried to instill her with fear.
“If you are saying, ‘I feel good about giving birth at home,’ they feel a duty to give you enough worst case scenarios that [you] might change your mind.”
Tom is a member of the Tla-o-qui-aht Nation. His ancestors have lived in their territories for thousands of years. His village, Opitsaht, is the oldest continually inhabited village on the west coast of North America.
Traditionally, babies were born in the community but the practice has been suppressed by colonization, Tom says.
“Before the hospital, everyone birthed at home,” he adds. “There’s certain medicine women that were in charge of helping women with labour.”
‘I lose power in those places’
These days, pregnant people usually leave Opitsaht before their due dates and may give birth in Port Alberni, Nanaimo or Victoria, which are a much longer, more difficult and more expensive ordeal.
The village of Opitsaht is a short water taxi ride from Tofino. Tofino is then over two-hours from the nearest birthing hospital in Port Alberni, on the Pacific Rim Highway. Drivers wind through Mid-island mountains, often losing cell service on the way to the hospital.
Tom and Fergusson live too far from a hospital for a midwife to assist them at home without losing their license, they explain. So, when they were planning Felix’s birth, they sought the help of a doula.
Doulas are care workers who are certified to provide physical, emotional, informational and sometimes spiritual support to people who are giving birth. They often support birthing parents and families pre and post-partum as well. They do not fulfill the same role as a midwife, and are not there to physically deliver the baby.
Early on in the pregnancy, they met Erynne Gilpin, a Cree-Métis birth worker and a founding member of the Nesting Doula Collective based in Victoria, B.C. when she was visiting Tla-o-qui-aht Tribal Parks.
Fergusson had confidence in her body and even more confidence that she didn’t want to be anywhere near a hospital for the ceremony, she says. Fergusson, who has mixed (mainly) Scottish, British, Irish and Swedish ancestry, says she wasn’t comfortable giving birth in a hospital because of the patriarchal norms that have shaped western healthcare.
Specifically, Fergusson feels that hospital staff and policies disempower her, and exert control over her body using fear. She has given birth in a hospital twice before.
“I find that I lose a lot of power in those places, just the way that they’re set up is against personal, and especially feminine power,” Fergusson explains.
Other doulas that the parents spoke with were apprehensive about being the only birth support worker, but Gilpin told the couple she was determined to make their dream a reality.
A scheduling issue with another birth would make it difficult for Gilpin to attend, so the parents prepared to be on their own.
“I was like…’I’ve got my hunny, we’ll be fine’,” Fergusson remembers. Tom and Fergusson had already birthed one baby outside of the hospital in Port Alberni and felt capable.
Months later, as Felix’s due date fast approached, Gilpin called, just out of assisting another birth, and said she was driving up to Opitsaht.
“I was like, you don’t have to do that, are you sure?” says Fergusson. “She drove all the way…that heart matches a mother’s heart.”
Strength and courage
Gilpin managed the environment and assured that Fergusson could focus on the process happening within her. She massaged Fergusson and helped her stay in the rhythmic breathing of birth. She assured everyone in the room was focused on supporting the birth and passed out fans, Fergusson remembers.
“I could allow my body to go through convulsions to go through pain,” says Fergusson. “ [I could] just get my 20th-century brain out of the way so that my body can do what it’s always known how to do.”
In the dimly-lit room, the voices of Tom’s ancestors sang. They played his father’s and grandfather’s Nuu-chah-nulth songs, drummed and prepared for Felix’s arrival, working with, not against the process of birth.
Felix was born on July 2, 2018, in his parent’s living room in Opitsaht. After coaxing from family members and vigorous back rubs, Felix let out a loud cry. As Fergusson crouched in the birthing pool, Tom pressed his forehead to hers. Tom caught both Felix, and his older brother.
“For me, it was very heartfelt,” says Tom. “The strength that courage it took for her to say yes, let’s birth at home… It was one of the most powerful experiences I’ve ever had.”
“We were so wastefully tired, but all our energy was just with the moment,” says Fergusson. “I get shivers and I cry every time…it’s just so magical.”
Although the parents had a contingency plan, in case of emergency (with boats and a helicopter on standby), it never came to that.
Felix’s birth was the first birth in over 50 years in Opitsaht.
Agency and choice
For many families who live in remote communities, giving birth in a hospital means travelling hours from home with little support. Indigenous families also face greater risk of baby apprehension, for making the decision to birth without a doctor, nurse or midwife present.
Birthing at home isn’t easy, but those who advocate for more access and support say it can change the experience entirely.
One of Gilpin’s colleagues, doula Tahia Ahmed, spoke with IndigiNews about the significance of home births and how different they can be from hospital births.
“I think a home birth ultimately is different than a hospital birth because I find that birth givers [at home] have more agency and more choice about what happens and who is there,” Ahmed says.
This agency and choice can be especially significant for birthing parents from communities with cultures that are unrecognized or stigmatized by Western medicine.
Ahmed says that one of the primary roles of the doula is to help birth-givers make meaning of the spiritual experience of birth. As such, it’s important for doulas to share the birth giver’s cultural understandings around birth, she explains.
“It’s a sacred event and there are different rituals and cultural traditions that go along with the sacred event,” says Ahmed. “Birth is more similar to death than it is to any other health problems or illness.”
To that end, it was important to both Fergusson and Tom that their son was born in his territory. He was in the presence of ancestors, and they had support from their family and community, he says.
Although no babies have been born in Opitsaht since Felix’s birth, Tom says that the event changed the conversation in their community.
“I find it very encouraging, and hopefully others do and are inspired by our own story,” says Tom. “[I hope] it does take off and more people do find the courage to birth at home, to birth in their own nation, to birth in their own village.”
Editor’s note: Erynne Gilpin (doula) is managing editor Emilee Gilpin’s sister. At IndigiNews we take journalistic independence seriously, adhering to the Canadian Association of Journalists Ethics Guidelines. Due the uniqueness of this birth and her role as doula, we felt it was important to report on this story.
Our series on reproductive health access is made possible in part with funding from First Nations Health Authority (FNHA) and Thunderbird Partnership Foundation. Their support does not imply endorsement of or influence over the content produced.