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Reconciliation starts with birth

Rev. Lori Calkins sorts baby clothes donated for clients of Indigenous Birth of Alberta. (photo Miranda Calkins)

October 4, 2021

By Janice Biehn

Rev. Lori Calkins remembers the neonatal intensive care nurse clearly. A Métis priest in the Diocese of Edmonton and an Indigenous Cultural Birth Helper, Calkins works with Indigenous Birth of Alberta to accompany Indigenous people through various health and social service needs. Often this means at a hospital, which can be intimidating and full of barriers for Indigenous people.

Calkins was helping a family navigate their way through the NICU. “When we explained that this client needed a trauma-informed culturally safe response, the primary NICU nurse assigned to that family got quite defensive and insisted she had been practising family-centered compassionate care for years. Then she shut down and couldn’t hear anything else. While she may be an excellent nurse, that’s not what this family needed.”

Calkins’ role is to bridge the gap between her Indigenous clients and healthcare and social services providers who at times have labelled her clients non-compliant, combative, absent or lazy. “Sometimes we’re slow to become aware of the way we were socialized. But if we can invite the other care providers into a circle of care we can make an impact.”

The discovery this year of unmarked and mass graves of children at Indian Residential Schools has underlined the systemic racism that was laid bare in theTruth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 Calls to Action. Calkins says she is living out CTA #61 – which in part calls for community- controlled healing and reconciliation projects. In 2020, PWRDF gave the Diocese of Edmonton $10,000 to fund Calkins’ work supporting Edmonton’s Indigenous women, many of whom were struggling, especially during the pandemic.

Calkins’ own path toward this work was not a straight line. She grew up in Vancouver, far from the Red River Settlement of her ancestors.“I did not grow up in my culture. My mother’s side of the family was part of the Riél Resistance and there were huge repercussions for those families in the aftermath. Along with all of the colonial and racist policies of the Canadian government, they stopped talking openly about our Métis identity.” She only found out she was Métis in her early 20s.

At 19 while at university, Calkins was introduced to Christianity. She describes having a spiritual experience while attending a church service. “The pastor was at the front wearing a collar, preaching to the congregation and I had a vision. … I saw myself in the pulpit wearing a collar, preaching.” She tried following various other career paths, like academia, nursing and midwifery,“but this sense of call just kept coming back.” She was ordained deacon and priested in 2008.

Calkins worked at different parishes in the Diocese of Edmonton and then, in the fall of 2016, her path took another turn.The TRC had just released its final report and a cross-country exhibit was installed at All Saints Cathedral in Edmonton.“It was the first time I wore a Métis sash out in public,” she recalls.“This was actually terrifying for me. There was this sense of danger in my family about declaring you were Métis, plus so much shame around it, so much internalized racism. I walked out of the house feeling like I had a target on my back.“

Bishop Jane Alexander had filled the Cathedral with red dresses.You had to physically push them out of the way to
pass. “I had my hand on this dress, and this little voice – I’m sure it was the voice of the Creator – said,‘these dresses need to come out of this church building and go outside, somewhere where people can really interact with them.’ And I remember thinking, well that’s a nice idea, who’s going to do that? And

little voice said ‘You are!’”Bishop Jane gave Calkins the dresses and with others, she created an art installation called “Ni wapataenan/We See.“ It was in a vacant inner city lot, near the home of many missing women in Edmonton.Through that exhibit she became connected with elders who guided her next turn.“ This kokhum (grandmother) and another Elder suggested I go back to doing birth work, that I learn how to do it in a cultural way. Because of the colonial experience, so many Indigenous people grew up disconnected from our teachings and our traditions, our ways and our ceremonies, and our language.”

“All of those harms that were done by the churches and the government, as part of the colonial experience in this country…this work directly addresses those things right from the very beginning.”

She explained to Bishop Jane the importance of birth work in the community and the Diocese began to support Calkins’ work.“So I see that this is the way that the church can honour those TRC calls to action. And it all started with the exhibit.”

Today, Calkins works with Indigenous Birth of Alberta full-time, funded by an endowment and grants, and is an honorary assistant at St. George’s in Edmonton.“It’s a way of life. I’m always on call for a birth.The phone is almost always ringing.”

Many clients access Indigenous Birth of Alberta when they are pregnant or have young children. Calkins describes her role like that of an auntie, someone you go to when you have a question – “not quite a kokhum question – but they can give you guidance to help you ‘walk in a good way.’ As aunties, we work in this gap that exists between what is provided by the healthcare system or children and family services, and the natural supports that they have available in the community. We serve Treaty 6, 7 and 8 territory. … Our goal is always to find people in those communities who are doing that work or wanting to do it, and support them and then that can be brought back to life in those communities.

“All of those harms that were done by the churches and the government, as part of the colonial experience in this country, all of those disruptions to our kinship systems, this work directly addresses those things right from the very beginning.

“So my own journey of faith in Creator and back to my culture is all tied up in the work that I do in the community, because it runs parallel.” Perhaps it was a straight line after all.

– This article was originally published in the September 2021 issue of Under the Sun.