Taught to be advocates: N.W.T. midwives protest proposed cuts to Yellowknife program

Dozens of protesters marched in front of the N.W.T. Legislative Assembly Thursday to denounce proposed budget cuts to the Yellowknife midwife program. (Natalie Pressman/CBC - image credit)
Dozens of protesters marched in front of the N.W.T. Legislative Assembly Thursday to denounce proposed budget cuts to the Yellowknife midwife program. (Natalie Pressman/CBC - image credit)

Midwives and supporters of midwife birthing services in the N.W.T. are calling on the territory to "stop the cuts" and reconsider scrapping a program meant to fund midwife jobs in Yellowknife.

The program, created in 2021, was designed to hire four midwives in Yellowknife to accompany existing birthing services in the capital and provide care to Dettah, Ndilǫ and Behchokǫ̀.

Last week, the finance minister tabled the budget with proposed cuts to the program to save $990,000.

Midwife supporters, however, say that's a bad idea.

Haylee Turi planned to use midwives for the birth of her son. But about a month from her due date, she had to evacuate Yellowknife for the nearby wildfires. Still, she said her midwifery team supported her through the process.

"It's just one of those things that's proven to be an invaluable service time and time again," Turi said.

"It's ridiculous that we're proposing this $900,000 budget cut for such an invaluable service."

Turi is one of dozens of protesters who came to the N.W.T. legislature Thursday to protest the proposed cuts.

Haylee Turi
Haylee Turi

Haylee Turi said that having the support of her midwifery team helped her throughout her birthing experience, despite having to leave Yellowknife about a month before her due date. (Natalie Pressman/CBC)

After three years, the Yellowknife program has never been fully implemented. There have been intermittent periods of midwifery service in the capital but never an established midwifery team.

Finance Minister Caroline Wawzonek said that's why she proposed the cuts.

"If the money is sitting there, $900,000 for something that's not been fully implemented, that's not the most transparent for one, but it's also not an effective use of public dollars," she said.

The proposed cuts do not impact midwife services in Hay River and Fort Smith. Those two communities each staff two registered midwives, with vacancies in each.

Health Minister Lesa Semmler said that supporting services in those communities is also a reason to cut the Yellowknife program and refocus their support to communities that don't have other birthing options.

"We are barely filling positions in those two communities where there are no prenatal services and no other services that will be provided to members in those communities … so this is where we need to focus on midwifery," Semmler said in the legislature Tuesday.

Health Minister Lesa Semmler said the government plans to refocus the funds from the Yellowknife program into communities that don't have other birthing services. (NWT Legislative Assembly)

But advocates say cuts to the Yellowknife program have the opposite effect and make it more difficult to attract staff in any N.W.T. community.

Gabby Lamarche, a Yellowknifer studying midwifery at the University of British Columbia, said she always planned to move back to Yellowknife when she graduates, but she says she's not ready to move to a smaller community where midwifery is the only birthing service.

Without positions in Yellowknife she says she'll likely look to start her career in the south.

"I'm not saying no forever, there is incredible value in working in those communities, however, as a new registrant, you're still new and it's important to be somewhere that has a higher birth volume so you can really continue that education and continue refining those skills," she said.

That means she would have to pay back student loans and bursaries she accepted under the premise that she would return to the N.W.T. for work.

"It's just been really stressful and really scary," she said.

Lamarche, who attended Thursday's protest, said advocacy is a big part of being a midwife and she takes that role seriously.

"We are taught that we are advocates for our clients and our patients … I think it's just important as an aspiring midwife that I am there advocating," she said.

MLAs are discussing the midwife program cuts, and other budget items in the current spring session. They will vote on the budget before the session ends on June 13.