Support in early-life key to well-being, Canada’s inquiry into violence against Indigenous women hears

Dr. Janet Smylie, a Cree-Metis physician, testified Tuesday on Indigenous health and wellbeing at the inquiry hearings in Iqaluit. (Garrett Hinchey/CBC)
The importance of health and well-being in early life for Indigenous people — and their ties to colonial violence — were highlighted Tuesday afternoon at the federal inquiry for missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, as four days of hearings in Iqaluit reached their halfway point.

The second panel of the four-day institutional hearing featured Dr. Janet Smylie, a ​Cree-Métis physician with over 25 years of experience. Smylie was certified as both an expert and knowledge keeper by commissioners prior to her testimony, indicating her extensive experience and knowledge in the field of Indigenous health.

Smylie gave a “strength-based” testimony, focusing on positive examples and best practices for Indigenous health in Canada.

“I think we’ve heard a lot of the problems already,” she explained.

Much of her evidence pointed to the importance of early life supports and well-being to long-term mental health. She cited Indigenous midwifery programs as positive examples to learn from, explaining that Indigenous midwives traditionally encompass more than just prenatal care, providing counselling services, treating sick children, and intervening in instances of family violence.

“It’s longstanding, it’s continuous, and it’s something that’s happened in almost every Indigenous, Métis and Inuit community I’ve been to,” she said. “It’s about health and wellbeing across the life cycle… it doesn’t just start when somebody’s pregnant.”

Smylie cited numerous studies that demonstrate the impact of early care and relationships on long-term health outcomes. She tied in an Indigenous perspective by explaining that many positive practices are rooted in culture, including “small ceremonies” — simple family gatherings, like sitting down to a meal.

“Maybe this sounds very simple,” she says. “But that’s the thing… it seems simple until you’ve lost it.”

The display sitting between commissioners and witnesses at the hearings in Iqaluit. It’s filled with traditional items, including a birchbark basket, okpik (owl) dolls and biscuits. (Garrett Hinchey/CBC)
‘I think we could lead the way’

Smylie said ensuring proper early development for youth is rooted in the health of the collective, and has been disrupted by colonial policies, high food prices, racism, and “fast lifestyles” — a culture increasingly spending time in front of screens and on social media.

“The mainstream public health literature can’t keep up with the impacts to how fast the screens are evolving,” she said. “But I think we could lead the way.

“We have a lot of experience of that [unplugged living], and we are still practicing it, despite all those attempts at disruption.”

During cross examination, Smylie was asked specifically about breastfeeding, agreeing that it should be considered a traditional food and that diminishing breastfeeding rates in Indigenous communities is a form of colonization.

Specifically asked if institutions that remove children from their mothers at an early age — sometimes denying them breastfeeding after just three days — is a form of colonial violence, Smylie agreed.

“If we just looked at mental health outcomes… that is definitely critically interfering with the development of the child. And that doesn’t even take into account the mental health for a mother… for the mother, it’s comparable to the death of a child.”

Smylie’s cross-examination will conclude Wednesday morning, before she is questioned directly by commissioners.

Commissioners question Inuit witnesses

Earlier Tuesday, commissioners concluded the first panel of the hearing, focused on the Inuit experience.

Elisapi Davidee Aningmiuq, Hagar Idlout-Sudlovenick, and Inukshuk Aksalnik during Tuesday’s cross-examination, accompanied by legal counsel. (Garrett Hinchey/CBC)

After testifying Monday, Elisapi Davidee Aningmiuq, Hagar Idlout-Sudlovenick, and Inukshuk Aksalnik were specifically asked by commissioner Michèle Audette — joining the hearing by videoconference — what recommendations the commission must include in its final report.

Davidee Aningmiuq focused her suggestion on delivering additional cultural funding to communities for family wellness programs, foreshadowing Smylie’s testimony on the importance of early health.

“It’s important to include the children,” she said. “Because they are our future. They need the confidence that they are going to grow up loving, healthy, and positive contributors to their family, and the territory.”

Idlout-Sudlovenick and Aksalnik, representing the Qikiqtani Truth Commission, recommended that the RCMP (Canada’s federal police) examine its own history of violence against Indigenous women and girls. Earlier, the pair testified that they had heard multiple stories during their own commission regarding sexual violence by RCMP members against Inuit in communities, having evidence that the federal government was aware of the problem as far back as 1958.

“I think it would be transformative for the RCMP,” Idlout-Sudlovenick said. “This history would be one way to serve those who have waited for so long to see themselves in one of Canada’s oldest and most pervasive institutions.”

Related stories from around the North:

Canada: Canadian Inuit say ‘urgency’ needed in child welfare changes, CBC News

Finland: Sámi school preserves reindeer herders’ heritage with help of internet, Cryopolitics Blog

Norway: Injustices against Sámi, Kven peoples to be examined by commission in Norway, The Independent Barents Observer

Sweden: Report sheds light on Swedish minority’s historic mistreatment, Radio Sweden

United States: Every Inuk needs to stand up and be counted, says new ICC chair, Eye on the Arctic feature interview

Garrett Hinchey, CBC News

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