Staffing issues force reduction in midwifery services in Fort Smith, N.W.T.

Farrah Freund has had five babies with a midwife in Fort Smith, N.W.T. Now she's being told she needs to travel to Yellowknife to deliver a sixth.  (Carla Ulrich/CBC - image credit)
Farrah Freund has had five babies with a midwife in Fort Smith, N.W.T. Now she's being told she needs to travel to Yellowknife to deliver a sixth. (Carla Ulrich/CBC - image credit)

Farrah Freund is well-versed at navigating life as an expectant mother in Fort Smith, N.W.T.

A lifelong resident, she's given birth to all five of her children there — each time, with the calm and capable support of a local midwife.

"It was very natural and easy and uncomplicated, and there [were] less interruptions for me to bond with my baby," Freund said of those experiences. "I believe mothers should all give birth within their home community."

Now 32 weeks pregnant with her sixth, Freund was excited to do it all over again. Then she learned that birthing services in town were going to be suspended.

The Northwest Territories Health and Social Services Authority made the announcement public last week. Expectant parents who would have given birth in town are instead being sent to Yellowknife for the foreseeable future.

For Freund, the news was upsetting.

"It was a shock to me, because midwifery [in the territory] kind of first started here," she said. "I know everybody who deals with the midwives loves staying in their hometown.

"I just feel like it shouldn't be happening to Fort Smith."

Staffing challenges to blame, says NTHSSA

A press release issued by the health authority stated parents affected by the new birth orders have been contacted directly and will receive "regular medical travel supports."

The town's health centre will continue to provide primary pre-natal and emergency-only care.

The changes officially came into effect on Tuesday.

Carla Ulrich/CBC
Carla Ulrich/CBC

The health authority has attributed this reduction in services to staffing challenges. David Maguire, the health authority's spokesperson, confirmed to CBC via email that only one of the three midwife positions in Fort Smith is currently filled.

"To operate the full suite of services we need at least two, and ideally three, who are fully trained and familiar with the local program to operate birthing services," he wrote.

The authority is actively working to recruit midwives for Fort Smith, alongside Hay River and Yellowknife, as part of its ongoing plan to expand midwifery in the three communities.

As it stands, there's no clear timeline for when Fort Smith's midwifery services will return to normal.

Maguire said this hinges on whether recruitment efforts for the vacant position are successful — a feat that's grown increasingly difficult as Canada grapples with a shortage of healthcare workers nationwide.

'A disappointment'

Sabrina Flack is a certified doula in Yellowknife and project director with the Northern Birthwork Collective, an advocacy group for reproductive justice in the territories.

She said while it wasn't particularly surprising to hear about the situation in Fort Smith given current challenges within the health sector overall, it's still a shame.

Submitted by Sabrina Flack
Submitted by Sabrina Flack

"I feel really sad for people who were planning to have those midwifery-led births," Flack said.

"It's just a disappointment to see … a community lose that service when we're all kind of advocating and working so hard for more communities to have that service. I hope it's not super long-lasting."

Flack then encouraged those impacted to contact the Northern Birthwork Collective if they want additional support.

Since launching in 2021, the group has developed various aids for families travelling to the capital to give birth, such as with additional medical escorts and providing stipends for groceries and transportation.

They've also created a network of doulas and birth workers in town who are able to offer prenatal education and support through labour and birth.