A new program in Wood Buffalo aims to help Indigenous families access culturally appropriate health care and support.
Aunties Within Reach is a joint project between the Ihkapaskwa Indigenous Wellness Collective and the University of Alberta.
The collective is run by three birth workers: Sheena Bradley, Shelby Weiss and Maddie Amyotte.
About a year ago, the women were approached by Stephanie Montesanti, associate professor in the school of public health at the University of Alberta, to develop the program.
They worked together for months, and the Aunties Within Reach Program launched in March.
Aunties Within Reach crisis line or immediate response line, where people can call to ask for help navigating the health-care system, get referrals or have an auntie come out and support families. Any Indigenous person in the region can call them and ask for help, whether it's finding an elder to help them, support services or hands-on assistance.
The program, run by the three birth workers, will run for six years.
"It's really just helping develop that strong family unit so that we can do some healing right in our own communities," said Bradley, a Métis herbalist and birth worker.
"We're really there to support the family in anything that they're going through," said Bradley.
The aunties travel to all communities in Wood Buffalo.
Weiss, auntie and birth worker, said the goal is to help Indigenous people in Wood Buffalo and demonstrate the importance of this support for wellness and health.
Weiss recently had a baby, and both Bradley and Amyotte were there to support her.
She said that helped because the women already know about Indigenous experience and racism within the health-care system.
While Weiss was in labour, Bradley was smudging.
"That was really, really grounding," said Weiss.
Weiss said she has had negative experiences in the health-care system, so she appreciated having support.
Amyotte, Métis birth worker and auntie, said many people have been happy to see the new program
"It's been widely known that there's a gap in services within the region," she said.
She said "it was like fireworks went off" when the opportunity for the program came up with the University of Alberta.
"We always saw money as a barrier," said Amyotte.
Amyotte is dreaming of bringing the option of traditional birth practices back to communities in the region that don't have access.
She said through colonization and residential schools, many "don't have first-hand experience with the ins and outs of being parents and raising families."
That means the aunties can help if parents don't know how to bathe a sick baby or have other questions.
Montesanti, associate professor in the school of public health at the University of Alberta, said the goal of the program was to create a wraparound system that could help families and address some social determinants of health, such as housing and shelter. The research aims to show what the need is in Indigenous communities for these types of services.
The long-term goal is to have aunties in each community and include uncles in the program.