The woman’s moans of pain mingled with the beeping of the fetal heartbeat monitor. Her midwife gently coached her, in the rhythmic language of their mother tongue, Inuktitut. Finally, a baby’s wail called out—his cry a reminder of what the Inuit midwives of Inukjuak have reclaimed—the right of pregnant women to give birth in their hometown. “I feel relieved to be able to give birth at home, where my family is,” said the new mother, Susie Mina.
For countless generations, Inuit of the Nunavik region in northern Quebec lived self-sufficiently as nomads—traveling across the wind-battered landscape to follow the herds. But in the 1950s, the Canadian government pressured families to settle in permanent communities. The government also pressured pregnant women to give birth, often alone, in hospitals hundreds of miles south rather than use local midwives who had traditionally provided care.
During the evacuation policy, the infant mortality rate in Nunavik soared to at least three times that of Montreal, in part because of the limited prenatal services. Now in the hands of Inuit midwives, infant mortality has dropped to 7.7 per 1000 births, compared to 5.8 for Canada in total.