Western News

September 21, 2019

Western Canada: Provinces review policies on birth alerts
Western Canada: Provinces review policies on birth alerts

Wendy Cox and James Keller

Every other day in British Columbia, an infant less than seven days old was taken into government care in 2017-18. In Manitoba, it happens even more often, Indigenous advocates say.

In Saskatchewan last year, the numbers were far smaller – 45 taken into care at the age of less than a month old.

Now, Saskatchewan and Manitoba are reviewing their policies of so-called birth alerts following concerns that the practice of having health authorities red-flag mothers with high-risk lifestyles – sometimes without their consent or knowledge – leads to too many babies being seized.

British Columbia said Monday it would stop the practice all together.

Data compiled for The Globe and Mail showed Indigenous women were disproportionately the subject of the alerts.

Figures released to Wendy Stueck after a June request showed between September, 2017, and September, 2018, 293 birth alerts were issued and just over half of them – 52 per cent – involved Indigenous women. In all but 84 of the cases, the child remains with the parents in the month after birth. Apprehensions were about equal between Indigenous and non-Indigenous mothers.

But B.C.'s children’s advocate, Jennifer Charlesworth, said birth alerts do nothing to support families at risk and keeping them together through, for example, counselling or housing assistance.

"Often it results in significant harm [and] it’s disproportionately impacting Indigenous moms,” Ms. Charlesworth said of the alerts.

The practice can also prompt mothers worried they will lose their children to avoid seeking medical attention during their pregnancies.

In June, the inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls in its final report called for “an immediate end to the practice of targeting and apprehending infants [hospital alerts or birth alerts] from Indigenous mothers right after they give birth.”

The agonizing impact of a move to seize an infant so soon after birth, even while mothers are recovering from the physical ordeal of delivery, was captured this past January by relatives of a Winnipeg mother whose child was apprehended in hospital.

This past January in the Cowichan Valley on Vancouver Island, the local community became so weary of watching social workers seize babies shortly after birth that they created a coalition group to support mothers at risk.

The local Cowichan Tribes is working with advocates including a midwifery practice, a women’s advocacy centre, a family lawyer and the local MLA, to develop a community model for family support and supervision.

Cora Morgan, First Nations Family Advocate with the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, said in an interview she considers the alerts a human-rights violation and profoundly unfair.

She noted a woman can be flagged as high risk because she had a previous child taken into care even when years have passed, the woman’s circumstances have changed and she has family and community support available.

“They’re flagging her as an unfit mother even before she’s had a chance to parent,” Ms. Morgan said.

This is the weekly Western Canada newsletter written by B.C. Editor Wendy Cox and Alberta Bureau Chief James Keller. If you’re reading this on the web, or it was forwarded to you from someone else, you can sign up for it and all Globe newsletters here. This is a new project and we’ll be experimenting as we go, so let us know what you think.

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Around the West

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Barrie McKenna on Alberta’s attacks on environmentalists: “The province’s oil sector is facing something much more dangerous than environmental activism: economics. Investors are continuing to shun the sector, unconvinced that Alberta’s costly and high-carbon oil reserves will ever get fully tapped in a world of low prices, excess supply, pipeline bottlenecks and stricter emission rules.”

Konrad Yakabuski on Canadian oil: “The bottlenecks faced by Alberta in getting its oil to tidewater remain a major stumbling block to restoring investor confidence in the oil sands. But if anything can drive home the point of the need for a new pipeline to tidewater, it is the opportunity cost Canada now faces as other producers, including the United States, step up to replace Saudi oil in some markets.”

Tom Flanagan on B.C.'s Westbank First Nation: “Each First Nation must find its own path to prosperity; not all will want to follow what Westbank has done. Others may prefer the model of community capitalism (band-owned enterprise) practiced by the Fort McKay First Nation in the heart of Alberta’s oil sands. But these and other paths to prosperity have one thing in common: First Nations move away from dependence on government to self-supporting participation in the Canadian economy.”


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