We dedicate the Colour of Birth gallery to the memory of Ms. Cotilda Douglas-Yakimchuk, one of our story-tellers who sadly passed in 2021. She was one of Nova Scotia’s first Black graduates from a Hospital School of Nursing in 1954. She dedicated her life to advocacy that resulted in Black nurses being accepted as trusted professionals and received the Order of Nova Scotia for her social activism.
Ms. Cotilda Douglas-Yakimchuk
(Photo courtesy of K. Wilson-Mitchell, 2019 CAM Conference, Halifax, NS.)
Produced by the Canadian Midwives of Colour History Project (CMOC), the Gallery is a multimedia experience exploring and documenting the history of Canada’s earliest, racialized, immigrant midwives and their communities during the 19th and early 20th centuries. This first iteration is focussed on Black communities in Canada: enslaved peoples, African fugitives/refugees of enslavement, Black pioneers/settlers, Loyalists and Black immigrants from the Caribbean.
Why? In short, history matters. There is a stark, historical under-representation of births in racialized immigrant communities. As such, there is an absence of well documented histories of racialized midwives and an absence of an archive to collect the unearthed stories, journeys, and the knowledge generated from this research. Unearthing midwifery and childbirth histories can inform and positively disrupt the current constellation of midwifery narrative empowering Black midwives and families. Midwifery students and Black clients have demonstrated a need to ground their identities and epistemologies in historical knowledge and ancestry. Weaving historical knowledge into midwifery history is a liberating pedagogy, which in turn contributes important stories of Canadian heritage benefitting all Canadians. Dr. Jeannie Shoveller, Dalhousie University, CIHR, Governing Council, explains that population health cannot be addressed until we know the context of the population and the history of the community provides this context. In short, history matters!
Principal Investigators are: PI: Dr. Karline Wilson-Mitchell DNP, RM, FACNM; Co-PI: Dr. Karen Flynn PhD.
Scholarly Research; Direct engagement with key communities; Compiling historical data from letters, journal entries, photographs, newspaper articles, etc.; Archiving stories through Auto-Creating the Narrative (ACN) - an equitable process of co-creation and co-authorship in the design, production and dissemination of oral narratives. Conceived by Canadian scholar and documentarian Cyrus Sundar Singh, ACN is designed to accommodate oral stories, music, poetry, dance and other communal activities such as knitting circles as storytelling devices. We used purposive and snowball sampling techniques. So we obtain participants by word-of-mouth.
Theoretical Framework utilizes: Black Feminism, antiblack racism, antioppression frameworks.
Funding for this work came from: SSHRC Insight Development Grant, Association of Ontario Midwives Research Grant.
Future Plans include: A goal to expand the gallery and scholarly outputs; and to explore the history of midwives in other racialized immigrant communities (e.g., Japanese Canadian midwives, South Asian and South-East Asian Canadian midwives).
Welcome to our small, yet beautifully rich community of researchers, storytellers, and archivists uncovering the untold history of racialized Midwives in Canada.
Throughout this gallery, you will have the ability to see what our team has uncovered to date.
A. When someone puts on a pair of reading glasses, or glasses for someone who is colour blind and they see colour for the first time in their lives, it’s breathtaking, transformational, emotional. When a child looks into a microscope for the first time and engages with the microscopic world, everything that they look at afterwards changes, forever. They can no longer pretend they didn’t see or say they didn’t know that amoebas or cell walls exist. It’s a similar transformation that we hope to evoke in all of our viewers, young and old. We are learning as a nation to see that history matters, that culture matters, and that race matters. It’s not enough to treat everyone equally, or “the same” to maintain safety, dignity and wellbeing. Actually equity causes us to individualize care, and advocate in order to produce similar social and health outcomes in our various racial populations. Each has a different life course. Current respectful maternity care research is teaching us that history matters.
A. No, there was actually a large contingent of immigrants from the Caribbean and Midwest United States who were free landowners and in some cases they were well educated under the British systems in the Caribbean.
The First refugees, immigrants, settlers we started to look at came from the Maritimes (NS) from 1880s until 1940s. Then we searched the various archives and Museums in Ontario: looking for stories in Toronto, Hamilton, Oakville, Amherstburg, Owen Sound, & Orillia. Then we continued to search for stories in Alberta and Saskatchewan.
We are hoping to find more stories in BC, and we’ve even learned that Black Canadians found themselves working in the Northwest Territories in the early 20th century to work in the oil industry and wondered if their families followed them there.
We have stories of the experiences of these Black settler families who immigrated with the promise of land in the rugged prairies.
However, these photos of the famous rancher and horse trainer, John Ware, don’t tell the whole story. We see him, his wife and infant but there are unanswered questions in the picture. She birthed twins. Why did this infant’s twin brother die in childbirth? Although her husband was a well respected, trusted rancher in the community, did this mother have access to all of the best resources and healthcare? Who attended her?
We fill in the blank when we review photographic evidence, birth records, newspaper articles, policies found in the Nexus database that covers all bills and policies passed in Canada for the past 300 years.
For example these photos of the famous Black Alberta Rancher John Ware. The stories are missing. John Ware, was well respected by white ranchers. His Wife birthed twin boys. Why did one twin die in childbirth? The photos leave more questions than answers.
Although her husband was well respected and trusted in the community, did this mother have access to all the best resources? Who attended her?
A. In Nova Scotia, birth certificates and registrations described Black Canadians as Africans, Negros or Coloured when they referred to the infant or parents. Physicians were described as physicians and white midwives as “nurses..”. It was clear that all of the births that occurred in Africville, a segregated Black community, were attended at home by Black midwives who consequently enjoyed no working privileges or access to employment at the hospital according to interview participants, (Ms. Cotilda Douglas-Yakimchuk.)
In contrast to NS certificates, Ontario certificates did not identify the race of the attendant who conducted the birth.
One of the things that came out in our interviews was the commitment of these midwives. Their work was extremely taxing, physically and emotionally. Often they would be required to walk miles during all four seasons in order to reach women in labour. Here Juanita Peters, Manager, Africville Museum explains the work of her great-great grandmother, the midwife.
There were many storytellers who provided a picture of the racism and exclusion that Black, internationally educated midwives faced after migration during the 1930s in Ontario and Nova Scotia. Ms. Yakimchuk is a recipient of the Harry Jerome Awards for her community activism for equitable housing and her fight against racism in nursing. She was the first and only Black President of the Registered Nurses’ Association of Nova Scotia.
Ms. Cotilda Douglas-Yakimchuk
“Mattie Mayes is recognized as the matriarch of Saskatchewan’s first and only Black pioneer settlement.” She conducted births in the community as a midwife in a settlement that had no access to physicians. She was one of Saskatewan’s first Black settlers, traveling with 12 families who settled in the Eldon District, near Maidstone.
A. No they were not welcomed. They were met with surprise, fear, outrage and discrimination, because they were expected to be White nurses, settlers or immigrants, not Black people.
Canada was not the friendly place it was purported to be. Newcomers were met with stereotypes, barriers and libelous accusations tarnishing their reputations, making them appear to be a threat. It is no wonder that a Saskatchewan midwife settler was falsely accused of an illegal abortion after she transferred a woman found to be hemorrhaging. Black females who came as nurses or held previous training as midwives were not equitably considered for hospital positions, and needed a burdensome set of requirements to merit prestige, status or trust in thecommunity.
For example, the Edmonton chapter of the Imperial Order Daughters of the Empire - a women’s organization that still exists - met in an emergency session to discuss the ‘negro influx.’ They then sent a strongly worded petition to federal Minister Frank Oliver that warned of lynchings and the fleeing of white settlers. You can read the full petition below but the most relevant part is highlighted below:
"We do not wish that the fair fame of Western Canada would be sullied with the shadow
of Lynch Law but we have no guarantee that our women will be safer in their scattered homesteads than white women in other countries with a negro population." Is it any wonder that this Black Saskatchewan pioneer midwife was charged and sentenced as a felon after discovering and transporting to the hospital a hemorrhaging women following either a spontaneous or botched unassisted abortion. Instead of being lauded, applauded, she was criminalized as many Black midwives were in Canada, Brazil and the U.S. of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. (this analysis is based upon Barrington Walker’s historical essays of the Canadian Legal system).
Amber Valley AL had second generation immigrant Black teachers, and domestic workers. But 80% of the Black community worked in the Railroads as porters making $70/month. Structural and systematic racism continued across Canada in terms of public service and professional jobs. such as midwifery work, despite the presence of a Social Credit government the 1950s and the presence of union activity e.g., Alberta Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (AAACP) from 1958 to 1961. And exclusion in housing, education, work and regulation of healthcare providers continued throughout the other provinces. On the day-to-day, interpersonal level, and within all sectors of society, highly respected health professions (including medicine, nursing and midwifery essentially barred Black individuals, most often through policies that de facto excluded females and/or radicalized people.
A. From the 1820s to 1860s individuals escaped slavery through the Underground Railroad which brought them to Ontario, Quebec and the Atlantic provinces as Canada’s first refugees. By contrast Black family members describe their ancestors coming as immigrants from Oklahoma to Saskatchewan’s first Black settlement where they described a vibrant church life, culture and strong networks. “Church” housed ancestral African ancestral traditions, mores, rituals and codes that were mingled with colonial teachings. Religious language and customs formed the framework which transmitted coded messages, metaphors for survival, and liberation.
‘... Shiloh Baptist Church was at the center of life for Saskatchewan's first Black settlement ... “My great grandparents, Joe and Mattie, and their ten children immigrated to Canada in 1910 to ... “My great grandparent Mattie was a midwife and helped the community with herbal remedies until the doctor arrived. They shared their food and skills with the entire community, not just the Black people. They understood if they were to survive, they had to work together. I want my children to understand it is important to be tolerant, work hard, be kind and to pray.” (explains Charlotte Williams who credits her family with how she learned to overcome racial challenges).’
Wood burning stove where likely well water was boiled to sterilise instruments for birth. (2017 photo Black Cultural Centre Cherrybrook, Dartmouth Nova Scotia, Wilson-Mitchell.
The communities discovered in this study were usually segregated in terms of housing, education, healthcare and birth. Where were these children in the photo born during the 1940s in Buxton Ontario. And who attended their births? We’ll need to do a lot more sleuthing to find out what those births were like. Robin Winks (2005) describes some of the characteristics of Black Canadian communities between slavery in 1628 until the first wave of Caribbean immigration in the 1950s and 1960s. Karen Robeson (2013) describes the segregated schools for Black children across Canada from the 1870s until 1965.
Students of School Section #13 with teacher, Verlyn Ladd, who taught at the school from 1939 to 1958. Class of 1951, Buxton, Raleigh Township, Ontario. (Buxton National Historic Site & Museum), photo provided by author, FUNKÉ ALADEJEBI
Very little is told about how births were attended in Ontario communities. We found many photos of the community but we could neither find photos of midwives, nor the tools they used other than one birth stool. We continue the search.
Image of Birthing stool now housed by the Amherst Freedom Museum. Birthing stools such as this were used by midwifes throughout Canada.
Permission: Mary-Kathrine Whilen (Curator/Administrator) firstname.lastname@example.org
Communities in all of the Canadian provinces where Black refugees and immigrants settled were segregated.
An article in the Edmonton Bulletin cites the barring of Negros from city pools in 1924. These policies were changed through activism and advocacy in the City Council in 1925.
It is not surprising that Ida Johnson self-identified as mixed Canadian Indian and white as it was safer to be considered Indian. In fact, her son married in the Indian church. Their complexion probably allowed them to “pass” for a Native Indian. The descendants of Ida Johnson’s (who died May 2,1963) may still be living in Oakville.
Andrew Tyrrell tells the story of his mother, Veronica Tyrrell, who was a British trained Guyanese midwife. He explained how the expertise and skills of Black immigrant midwives were not recognized. They experienced gaslighting, and racist exclusion from practice.
Veronica Tyrrell RN (Photo Courtesy of Andrew Tyrrell)
The story of Black midwives working in Canada is a story about immigration, settlement, creative community service, restraint of trade, missed opportunities, social innovation and grass-roots activism.
Regardless of which hat she wore, Miss Lillie, one of the the founders of the Sickle Cell Foundation of Ontario. Her advocacy ensured that in 2005, every newborn would be screened for sickle cell anemia in Ontario, saving thousands of lives. Lillie Johnson and many other immigrant midwives demonstrated what is known as “motherwit” in the Southern USA (Onnie Lee Logan Alabama Grand or Elder midwife, 1995). It is the integrated clinical knowledge, ancestral wisdom and culturally sensitive expertise that midwives apply to any setting in which they find themselves. They became innovators who creatively implemented protocols and policies that allowed their communities to survive and thrive.
Photo #1 Lillie Johnson (Born 1922) at Graduation as a nurse-midwife in Jamaica,
Photo #2 Upon her 1960 immigration to Ontario, Canada
Photo #3 Then as a retired PHN in Canada who inspires midwifery students, nursing students and public health activists in the community.
There are so many stories of midwives who were only allowed to credential as nurses. Those midwives achieved incredible breakthroughs in healthcare as they became advocates for social justice policies. These include Lillie Johnson, Public Health Nurse who fought to have sickle cell screening and hemoglobin electrophoresis diagnosis for all newborns instituted into the provincial and national newborn screening policies, thereby saving 1000s of lives. In 1981 she founded the Sickle Cell Association of Ontario, along with a group of other professionals. Lillie remains an active member and was instrumental in advocating for the inclusion of Sickle Cell Disease to newborn screening in Ontario in 2006. She was inducted into the Order of Ontario, in 2011, the province’s highest honour, for her Founding and policy promotion work with Sickle Cell Association of Ontario. She was named Toronto Public Health Champion in 2009 and the Province’s first Black Director of Public Health, in Leeds-Grenville and Lanark, Ontario.
We hope that you have found these stories to be informative and empowering. Please give us verbal or written feedback here. Share the web gallery link with your friends, peers and colleagues. Ask your family and children to visit the Children’s gallery and provide us with feedback. Children are encouraged to upload their feedback using pictures or recorded statements here. By submitting these photos and recordings you are helping us to improve the gallery. We will ask for permission to share your children’s drawings in the gallery.
The Aspen Institute, Community Roundtable for Change. Glossary for Understanding the Dismantling Structural Racism/Promoting Racial Equity Analysis.
Braveman PA, Arkin E, Proctor D, Kauh T, Holm N. Systemic And Structural Racism: Definitions, Examples, Health Damages, And Approaches To Dismantling: Study examines definitions, examples, health damages, and dismantling systemic and structural racism. Health Affairs. 2022 Feb 1;41(2):171-8. Retrieved from
Bridgeman-Bunyoli, AM, Cheyney, M, Monroe, SM, Wiggins, N, Vedam, S. Preterm and low birthweight birth in the United States: Black midwives speak of causality, prevention, and healing. Birth. 2022; 49: 526– 539. doi:10.1111/birt.12624
Craig P, Di Ruggiero E, Frolich KL, Mykhalovskiy E, White M, Campbell R, Cummins S, Edwards N, Hunt K, Kee F, Loppie C. Taking account of context in population health intervention research: guidance for producers, users and funders of research.
Hong X, Bartell TR, Wang X. Gaining a deeper understanding of social determinants of preterm birth by integrating multi-omics data. Pediatr Res. 2021 Jan;89(2):336-343. doi: 10.1038/s41390-020-01266-9. Epub 2020 Nov 13. PMID: 33188285; PMCID: PMC7898277.
Kemei J, Tulli M, Olanlesi-Aliu A, Tunde-Byass M, Salami B. Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Black Communities in Canada. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. 2023 Jan 15;20(2):1580.
Historical research about racialized midwives’ history of immigration, settlement and integration into Canadian society has such mysterious twists and turns. Unearthing some of the hidden stories involved: searching through old newspapers, flyers, physicians journals, hospital procedures, national and provincial health policies, old photographs and family heirlooms. Finally the pieces came together as first hand witnesses gave their accounts of working as a midwife, being birthed by a midwife or having been attended by a midwife. The story of the Black midwives who came to Canada is full of tragedy and triumph. Following are frequently asked questions that folks had for us during this journey.
Amongst the slaves that Harriet Tubman led to freedom, there were midwives.
In Black communities, a keeper of health knowledge could be referred to as: A Doctress, a Nurse or a Midwife. They blended traditional herbal and modern techniques to treat. Some were well known for their healing salves and ointments.
We found birth certificates and journal entries in physician journals in Nova Scotia for midwives: Mrs. M. Doherty, Elizabeth Byers, Grandma Brown, Mrs. Price, Mrs. Ronan, Barbara Matthews, and Mrs. Fanny Carvery were Africville midwives. Barbara Matthews was a Black Loyalist who worked in Shelburne and Yarmouth. They were all well known as being well-respected herbalists, healers and respected community leaders.
We also uncovered stories of immigrant midwives in the prairies. In Alberta we discovered Mrs. Amy Broadie, from a farm in Tiger Lily, And Mrs. Drusilla Threatt Smith (in Amber Valley). In Saskatchewan we were introduced to Mattie Maye.
Families emigrated from Oklahoma to Alberta and Saskatchewan. One of these families belonged to Drucilla Threatt (AKA Drucilla Smith or Drucilla Jamerson), the great, great grandmother of current Alberta midwife, Chandra Martini, who emigrated originally from Alabama to Alberta. These women were known as Black Pioneer Midwives (says Chandra Martini, RM, Alberta).
Q. Are there any other notable Black immigrant midwives in the prairies?
A. They called themselves “Black Pioneer Midwives”. There was also a nurse and midwife, Mrs. Amy Broadie (1908-late 1930). She conducted births in the districts of Campsie, Junkins (now Wildwood), Keystone (now Breton), and Pine Creek (now Amber Valley) in Alberta. Historian, Debbie Beaver, writes that, “She traveled from house to house by horse and wagon a day or so prior to the expected date of delivery and would stay with the family a few days after the birth as well….Although times have changed, the hard work and sacrifices of these early settlers continues to influence their descendants, and many are well educated and successful in many areas today. These stories need to continue to be told, preserved and passed down to the future generations as this is an important piece of Canadian history. (Beaver, 2017) Debbie Beaver is a member of the Black Settlers of Alberta and Saskatchewan Historical Society (BSAS).
“The [BSAS] is a non-profit organization that was started by four women who are all descendants of the black settlers that came to Alberta and Saskatchewan from the United States between 1905-1911. These settlers migrated from the rural South via Oklahoma to escape racial oppression and Jim Crow laws.” (Debbie Beaver, 2017, ‘Black Settlers of Alberta and Saskatchewan Historical Society’ published in the History Matters, online magazine by Active History)
Canada emerged from Slavery in 1834 but hierarchies i.e. Structural Racism continued. There were many well known, Segregated towns across Canada (e.g., Africville, Nova Scotia), where there were segregated elementary Red School Houses) & professional schools. Racism was reflected in both the written and unwritten policies and regulations. It resulted in exclusion, poverty, social disparity and health inequity.This also existed in Ontario. Policies restricted education of Black people, entrance into nursing, midwifery or medical school until the 1950s. Segregation of hospitals existed for both patients & workers. Many immigrants came from the Caribbean to Alberta as teachers, court clerks, stenographers and oil workers, further increasing the diversity within Alberta’s Black community. Token individuals like Violet King were permitted into law school which allowed her to become the first Black female lawyer to graduate in 1953. But generally, Black women were barred from professional academic institutions. The research team is filling in the blanks for stories in which pieces are missing. The stories we heard included accounts of tightly connected communities in which folks knew how many horse & buggies could be shared, allowing a Black midwife to quickly attend births several miles away. All we know is that many midwives walked, got a lift by horseback or rarely a truck ride, to attend births within the large perimeter of their communities. We found some evidence of midwives (often described and documented as “nurses”) who contributed valuable skills and leadership to Ontario communities. One such figure was Ida Leon Johnson (née Ida Roberts) who was the daughter of Junius B. Roberts and Frances A. Roberts. She married John Alexander Johnson (Parents=George B. and Amanda Johnson) on 28 Sep 1887 in Oakville. Their history would be recorded among the Black historical records in Oakville. They were the parents of multiple children, including Ira Junius Johnson (A black man) who then married Isabella Jones (a white woman) in 1930. Ira Johnson was the son of IDA JOHNSON The KKK came from the US to try to prevent Ira’s controversial wedding (although interracial marriage was legal in Canada). The KKK went as far as burning a cross in the girl’s parent’s (Jone’s) lawn and challenged their son to “mend his ways” since he had been brought up in a “sterling manner” by his family, namely “Ida Johnson” a respected community member. According to the Star newspaper on March 7, 1930 and the Oakville Journal Record newspaper, later in 1930, the wedding occurred in an Indian church in New Credit, near Hagersville, Ontario. March 23, 1930 they announced their marriage in the Salvation Army.
We found some evidence of midwives (often described and documented as “nurses”) who contributed valuable skills and leadership to Ontario communities. One such figure was Ida Leon Johnson (née Ida Roberts) who was the daughter of Junius B. Roberts and Frances A. Roberts. She married John Alexander Johnson (Parents=George B. and Amanda Johnson) on 28 Sep 1887 in Oakville. Their history would be recorded among the Black historical records in Oakville. They were the parents of multiple children, including Ira Junius Johnson (A black man) who then married Isabella Jones (a white woman) in 1930. Ira Johnson was the son of IDA JOHNSON The KKK came from the US to try to prevent Ira’s controversial wedding (although interracial marriage was legal in Canada). The KKK went as far as burning a cross in the girl’s parent’s (Jone’s) lawn and challenged their son to “mend his ways” since he had been brought up in a “sterling manner” by his family, namely “Ida Johnson” a respected community member. According to the Star newspaper on March 7, 1930 and the Oakville Journal Record newspaper, later in 1930, the wedding occurred in an Indian church in New Credit, near Hagersville, Ontario. March 23, 1930 they announced their marriage in the Salvation Army.