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Laurentian midwifery students' careers on hold

Demise of Laurentian midwifery program could have long-lasting, profound impact says student and midwife
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A vehicle driven by a Laurentian University midwifery student was among a few dozen that participated in the Rally on Wheels to protest the losses and the use of the CCAA to address the university’s financial problems.

The demise of Laurentian University’s midwifery program was a slap in the face to Hayley Horton and others like her who had their studies disrupted and careers put on hold.

The collective impact on Northern Ontario could be longer-lasting and profound.

“People are feeling scared and betrayed,” said Horton, who is from Blind River and in her fourth year in the midwifery program. “It really did feel like a slap in the face.”

It started on April 12 when Horton and her class began a morning session of intensive midwifery lessons. The teacher was called out for a meeting where she found out she was terminated. Afternoon classes were cancelled. Students were stunned.

“We were totally blindsided,” said Horton.

Horton will now complete her program at McMaster University in Hamilton. She will do her placement at home in Blind River where she has worked for the last three years as an administrative assistant with Tammy Roberts who serves the North Channel area as a midwife.

Horton appreciates the efforts McMaster has made to accommodate her situation but adds that the transition has been anything but easy.

“Laurentian didn’t really make anything transparent,” she said.

Before taking on her placement – which was supposed to have started May 3 -- there’s a jungle of paperwork to get through, including signing new contracts with McMaster and switching insurance.

The whole situation has Roberts feeling sad and frustrated.

Roberts graduated from the Laurentian midwifery program in 2011 and has been servicing the North Shore area since 2013. She sees the long-term repercussions of closing the program.

“I went back to university in my 30s with two children at home and certainly would not have attended a midwifery program in southern Ontario had I not had the opportunity to attend at Laurentian,” she said.

Roberts serves a large catchment area from Massey in the east to Thessalon in the west and points in between. She serves First Nations communities and a decent-sized Amish community. She visits clients in their homes and works as part of a team with local hospitals.

There was no midwifery practice in the area before Roberts took on the role after much lobbying to get established.

“I am from this area. I grew up in Blind River. It was always my goal to come home,” said Roberts.

The provincial government has expressed its commitment to maintaining a midwifery program in Northern Ontario.

“An area of concern for me, and all of Northern Ontario, is the university’s decision to end the midwifery program,” Sault MPP and Minister of Colleges and Universities Ross Romano said in a recent statement on sootoday.com. “This program is the only bilingual midwifery program in Canada. It is crucial that we have the necessary health human resources to provide high-quality health and wellness care in Northern Ontario.

“That is why the government provided Laurentian University $1 million annually to offer the program. I want to be clear; the government’s priority is to maintain a Northern and bilingual midwifery program option.”

The creation of a new midwifery program is not a quick process, Romano said in the statement. “To that end, while the government continues to work on longer-term solutions, it is also working on immediate pathways for students impacted through the only two other universities that offer midwifery programs, Ryerson and McMaster.”

The minister’s words don’t ease Roberts’s concerns.

“I feel like it’s lip service to appease people at the moment,” she said.

Roberts said there haven’t been a lot of discussions with the professional midwives’ association about the future of a new Northern Ontario program.

It may be forthcoming, but she said we are “clearly behind the eight-ball on this.”

What’s particularly frustrating to Horton is that Laurentian’s program was doing everything asked of it.

Horton expressed this in a letter asking Blind River Council to condemn the cut.

Horton said the university stated it was cancelling the program due to low enrolment despite having 300 applicants last year with 30 students accepted.

“Our school is run by 18 women and is ‘envelope funded’, meaning that the Ontario government funds our program completely. We do not cost the university anything. In fact, we are profitable for them,” she wrote.

Horton said simply adding more spaces to midwifery programs in southern Ontario is not a solution. Working in the North brings a different set of challenges such as travel and nutrition in more remote areas. A Northern midwifery program teaches students how to mitigate some of these problems, she said.

“By every metric, the midwifery program at Laurentian is successful,” wrote columnist Margaret Shkimba in the Hamilton Spectator. “It is a highly sought-after program for students in the North because midwifery care is particularly relevant for women in the North. The program at Laurentian has graduated over 400 midwives who have gone on to work all over Canada. These midwives have specialized training in low-resource maternity care with vulnerable populations.”

The need for midwives is clearly evident to Roberts. It can be especially acute in under-serviced Northern Ontario locations.

“We have fewer and fewer family physicians that are interested in practising obstetrics,” she said. “The way to have health care providers in the North is to grow your own.”

When students from Northern Ontario study in the south they often don’t come home, even if that was their intention, said Roberts.

Despite setbacks brought on by the situation at Laurentian University and the unexpected detour to McMaster, Horton remains committed to working in her hometown.

“That’s the dream,” she said.