Lesley Paulette, the woman who helped carve the way for N.W.T. midwives, retires

·5 min read
Lesley Paulette has been a midwife in the N.W.T. since the early 1990s, and has played a major role in expanding midwifery in the territory.­ Now, she's retiring. (Submitted by Lesley Paulette - image credit)
Lesley Paulette has been a midwife in the N.W.T. since the early 1990s, and has played a major role in expanding midwifery in the territory.­ Now, she's retiring. (Submitted by Lesley Paulette - image credit)

Many years ago, in the midst of a young woman's long labour in Fort Smith, Northwest Territories, midwife Lesley Paulette wondered if the mother would need to be transferred to a Yellowknife hospital.

"Often, people don't want to go – they really want to try to have the baby here, even if things are moving slow," Paulette said.

It was a moment that stood out to her in her 30 years practice in the territory — it showed her the power of midwives.

The woman in labour happened to be a great granddaughter of one of the traditional midwives whose picture was mounted on a tribute wall outside a birthing room in the community at the time, Paulette recalled.

Paulette remembers the woman's sister taking the photograph of their great grandmother off the wall, bringing it into the birth room, and the mood changing.

"It was as though her great grandmother had come into the room too, and was supporting her," Paulette recalled.

"She got this like burst of energy and kind of renewed commitment that she was going to do it here. And sure enough … she delivered the baby not too long afterwards."

It was one of many births Paulette, a Mohawk descendant originally from eastern Canada, attended during her years as a midwife in the community.

"I often think back to it because it really captured sort of the power of what we were able to do," she said.

Paulette has been a midwife in the N.W.T. since the early 1990s, and played a major role in expanding midwifery in the territory.

Now after all these years and births, she's retiring.

Forging the way

Paulette decided she wanted to become a midwife back in the 1980s, during a time of her life that she describes as a "journey of self discovery."

"I explored a couple of other options. At one time, I even thought about going into medical school," she said.

In that time frame, she had connected with Katsi Cook, a Mohawk midwife, she said.

"Her vision of what midwifery meant, or could mean to families – Indigenous families and communities — really spoke to me. And so I sought her out and spent some time with her," said Paulette, who now lives in Fort Fitzgerald.

"And that's when it really clicked and I thought, yeah, this is what I'm meant to be doing."

Throughout the 80s, Paulette went to births in the Fort Smith hospital as a doula, according to a bio on the Northwest Territories Health and Social Services Authority website. It was around that time that she began connecting with elders in the territory who had been traditional midwives, and learning of the great need for midwives.

There was no clear path anywhere in Canada to become a midwife at the time, so she built her own education program in a way by finding educational opportunities in the U.S.

"It was definitely more of a calling than a career choice. Had it been like a rational career choice, I probably never would have chosen that," she said. "I had to forge my own way."

Submitted by Gisela Becker
Submitted by Gisela Becker

When physician-attended births were suspended in Fort Smith in the 1990s, Paulette started to help with home births — because midwifery was not yet regulated in the Northwest Territories and midwives did not have hospital privileges.

She didn't charge for her services, though families would sometimes give her and the midwives she worked with money, baked goods, firewood or wild harvested meat and fish.

Gisela Becker, a midwife from Germany who moved to Canada decades ago, corresponded with Paulette in the early 90s.They became long-time friends, and for about 13 years, birthing partners.

Submitted by Gisela Becker
Submitted by Gisela Becker

"In many ways, Fort Smith midwifery practice and working with Lesley became the most wonderful practice that I had, looking back at an almost 40-year career," Becker said.

"I would say it was the most wonderful and most profound experience that I had as a midwife."

Their relationship has always been warm. When Becker showed up to Paulette's home in 1997 practically unannounced —  she was having difficulty reaching Paulette on the radio phone — for a first time in-person meeting, Paulette greeted her as an old friend. Later, Becker would help in the birth of Paulette's third child.

"I really felt that our partnership and our friendship, and us working so closely together and supporting each other in whatever way we could, really also made the program successful in the end," Becker said.

Getting midwives registered

Paulette helped write the N.W.T.'s Midwifery Profession Act and its standards of practice.

She became registered in the N.W.T. when an act regulating the field came into force in 2005. Later on, she'd become the senior midwifery consultant for the Department of Health and Social Services.

Pierre-Emmanuel Chaillon
Pierre-Emmanuel Chaillon

"The progress of midwives has been driven by the community voice," says Paulette's bio. "We are blessed in the N.W.T. to have midwives like Lesley Paulette relentlessly forging this path."

Watching her work live on

Paulette has been making the transition toward retirement for a few years now. Though she's been to several births in the past two years, December 2020 was the last time she was the primary provider.

"I hardly noticed that I'm retired," Paulette said, "but I guess, officially, I am."

Paulette said she has met much of the community by being part of their births.

"Some of those babies are grown up and have their own families now," she said.

She said she even feels a pang of sadness now, when she sees unfamiliar babies and families while out and about.

"But that's part of moving on into another phase of my life. So I have to accept that," she said.

And, she noted, she still has ties to new families she hasn't worked with personally in the N.W.T.

"I was very much a part of creating the program here that it still, you know, goes strong and delivers services to those families ... in that way, I do still feel connected."

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting