A helping hand, far from home, in a time of need
Distance, stigma mean some Aboriginal women feel they do not have a choice
The narrow staircase leading down to the basement has fewer than a dozen steps but getting to the bottom can be a difficult task.
“It’s not that fancy, but it’s cozy and comfortable,” Jessica Yee says as she walks past a basement bedroom in a hallway stacked with plastic storage containers and a portable closet stuffed with clothes. Black birds, flying on the wind through bright red leaves, are stenciled on the wall above the concrete floor. Only a handful of girls and women have made it this far.
This brown-brick house with green trim nestled on a quiet side street in a lively Toronto neighbourhood has served as the end of the road – and, in a way, a new beginning – for six or seven travelers over the past two years.
Their histories and realities have varied – they ranged from 14 years old to about twice that age; some were mothers already and some were not – but besides being female they all have at least four things in common. They came from remote rural communities. They were Aboriginal. They were pregnant. They did not want to be. They also shared the same reproductive rights as any other Canadian woman, including the one that allows them to terminate an unwanted pregnancy if they so choose.
But because of geographical distance, a lack of confidentiality in their small communities and a complex cultural stigma surrounding abortion, they had to journey down the narrow staircase to that basement bedroom for those rights to mean very much at all.
The way that Valerie Gideon, regional director for Ontario of the First Nations Inuit Health Branch at the federal health department, explains it, accessing an abortion is a straightforward process once an Aboriginal woman informs the registered nurse or visiting primary care physician that she wants to terminate her pregnancy.
“She would be provided with all that information about what those options would be, what services are available to her . . . and then if she made an informed decision where she wanted to access the service then she would be referred to the appropriate centre,” said Gideon, added that a federal program would cover the cost of transportation, meals and accommodation.
Yee and other women who work with these communities explain the process is far more complicated than that.
The eldest daughter of a Mohawk mother and a Chinese father, the 24-year-old Yee is already a highly respected activist in the pro-choice movement, something which she prefers to call the fight for ‘reproductive justice’, given there are many women she feels have no real choice to begin with.
As the founder and executive director of the Native Youth Sexual Health Network she spends her days flying across Canada and the United States speaking about everything from disease prevention and gay rights to cultural competency and access to abortion.
And every so often Yee has opened her doors to someone who has travelled alone on a bus hundreds of kilometers away from home so she could seek an abortion in Toronto, because if you are an Aboriginal woman living in a remote Northern Ontario community, that can be the only way to get one.
“It can be a really frightening experience for some people,” says Yee, whose support for the houseguests is volunteer work separate from her day job. “On the one hand, people just want to get it over with and get here, but on the other hand, if they’ve never travelled by plane, by bus, by anything – that is where we step in.”
They and the women she refers to other safe havens across the country come to her from a wide network of pro-choice contacts she has made throughout her travels, who often keep their positions secret until they hear through the grapevine that someone needs help.
She can pick them up at the bus station, give them a bed to sleep in – especially pregnant girls too young to book a motel on their own – escort them to the clinic and listen to their stories and concerns.
To explain why she feels this generosity is necessary, Yee likes to refer to an interactive map of the country put together by the abortion rights group Canadians for Choice that shows where women can find service providers.
She notes how few of them are located outside the biggest cities.
“If you look at the map. . . who does that really affect? Who lives there?” Yee says at her kitchen table, where a red laptop is plastered with stickers about sex education and Mohawk pride. “We live there, as Aboriginal people.”
It is not surprising that geographical distance would be a barrier for abortion-seeking women living in remote Aboriginal communities, given that getting to a city hospital to see a specialist for something as simple as migraines can be just as difficult for anyone living on an isolated reserve.
It is not the full story.
Secrets are hard to keep in small communities, especially when a woman needs to get permission from her band council – which Health Canada says is done upon the referral of a health care professional without disclosing any details – to pay for the travel.
A family physician who performs about a dozen abortions a month in northern Canada says this can happen even though health care professionals are required by law to keep medical information confidential.
“The person that works at the front desk, who will be Aboriginal from that community, knows everybody in town – knows your mother,” says the doctor, who asked not to be identified for security reasons.
The doctor said language can also be factor, especially in areas where indigenous languages are still strong, because a patient often needs to bring a family member as an interpreter.
There is also a deeply ingrained cultural stigma that surrounds the abortion debate in Aboriginal communities.
Conservative MP Rod Bruinooge (Winnipeg South), who chairs the parliamentary pro-life caucus, says his Aboriginal background informs his stance against abortion.
“My aboriginal elders have taught me that the cycle of life honours both birth and death, and respect for the unborn is a foundation of this philosophy,” Bruinooge, who did not respond to an interview request for this article, wrote in the National Post in December 2008.
This position frustrates Yee because she believes it tries to paint all indigenous belief systems with the same brush and ignores a cultural history of abortion that she argues was distorted by the role of the church in colonization and the tragic residential school system.
Yee says midwifery tends now to be fully focused on the act of giving birth, whereas it used to include knowledge of how to terminate an unwanted pregnancy.
“We don’t have words for ‘abortion’, but we have words for ‘How do you make your period come?’” says Yee. “What are the teas, the herbs, the plants, the medicines for if you can’t carry a child to term – if there was war, if there was famine, if there was disease in the community.”
Yee worries about this cultural stigma being reinforced by outsiders.
She says she has a friend who was interning as a nurse in a northern Ontario community when a young woman came in for a pregnancy test. The result was positive and the white doctor grabbed a bottle of prenatal vitamins before going in to tell his patient the news.
Yee says her friend asked him what he was doing, given it was possible the patient did not intend to go through with the pregnancy and he dismissed her objections.
“He was like, ‘Well, this is an Aboriginal community and you’re new here and you just don’t know that they don’t do that,’” says Yee.
And there is one 21-year-old woman who came to Toronto from northern Ontario who sticks out in her mind. She was in an abusive relationship, had no access to birth control in her community and had decided to have an abortion because she was trying to get her child back from provincial care.
“She was such a champion of her own health care, (considering) what she had to go through to get here,” says Yee.