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Inuit mothers fight lonely battle for their children's health Add to ...

At 3:12 p.m. last Wednesday, 16-year-old Sherrie Akammak was getting dressed for her first-ever trip to a real movie theatre when her eyes widened and her jaw dropped.

She looked across the drab boarding-house room in Winnipeg where she had been confined for three weeks and yelled to her mother.

"It's ready. We have to go."

Her mother, Theresa Akammak, had been in this position before - 12 times before, to be precise, nine for herself and three for another daughter. Yet her familiarity with the ritual of childbirth did little to allay her anxiety. In a panic, she phoned downstairs to reception at the Kivalliq Inuit Centre.

"My daughter's going into labour," she said. "We need a van. Now."

In the Akammaks' world - the world of Inuit women living 1,200 kilometres north of Winnipeg in Arviat, Nunavut - the anticipation of birth is often tinged with premonitions of death.

I don't deny that other countries need help, but don't they know what's going on up here in their own backyard? We can't take care of our mothers and we need help. Shirley Tagalik

Like most communities in the North, Arviat, the third-largest settlement in the territory (population 2,100) and home to Canada's highest birth rate (roughly 35 per 1,000 people, compared to a national average of 10.3) has no permanent doctor, no hospital, no midwife, no public health nurse - no one to help the 70 or so women who get pregnant every year, save for seven overworked nurses at the health centre. That's why most pregnant women here, like Sherrie, are flown south to cities like Winnipeg in order to give birth. But even then, there are problems.

Sherrie's sister miscarried once and then lost a premature child when the Medevac plane didn't arrive on time. The family knows dozens of women - many barely past puberty - with similar stories.

The statistics on aboriginal infant care in Canada are similarly bleak. An Inuit baby is 3½ times more likely to die before its first birthday than a non-Inuit newborn. (The infant mortality rate in Nunavut is the highest in the country, at 15.1 deaths for every 1,000 live births, compared with a national average of 5.1.) Inuit children have the highest rate of hospital admission for lower respiratory tract infections in the world. Compared with other children, aboriginal offspring are 50 times more likely to contract pneumonia, 80 times more likely to catch chicken pox and seven times more likely to be born to a teenage mother. Around 40 per cent report chronic illness.

Canada will invite close international scrutiny of those dismal numbers at this month's G8 summit when it quarterbacks a multibillion-dollar plan to improve maternal health in the developing world.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has spoken passionately about his desire to improve the lot of women and children in poor nations, but critics say there is a desperate maternal plight right here, in his own country.

"I was absolutely shocked," said Shirley Tagalik, a member of Arviat's health committee, of the moment she heard about Mr. Harper's international maternal health initiative. "I don't deny that other countries need help, but don't they know what's going on up here in their own backyard? We can't take care of our mothers and we need help."

'I'm very, very homesick'

The day before her water broke, Sherrie Akammak sat in a booth in Winnipeg's famed Pancake House, desultorily pushing a hamburger and fries around her plate. She wasn't hungry, but couldn't refuse a rare opportunity to leave the centre - her own personal "jail cell" as she calls it.

She feigned shyness, preferring to speak with her body in the Inuit custom - raised eyebrows for ii, or yes; a squint for nau, or no; and shrugged shoulders, universal teen-speak for "Don't know, don't care, enough with the dumb questions already." Yes, Sherrie Akammak - she of teal fingernails, broad child-like cheeks, short black hair and faded hoodie - is 16 and acts 16, even when it comes to this whole pregnancy thing.

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