Race, culture, and the colonization of childbirth in northern Canada

Soc Hist Med. 1997 Dec;10(3):383-400. doi: 10.1093/shm/10.3.383.


This paper traces the history, in northern Canada, of what childbirth has been made to stand for in the relationship between aboriginal women and the agents of colonization. During the early centuries of contact, European impressions of aboriginal women were dominated by associations with animal nature and the myth of painless childbirth, with the result that the culture of childbirth and the role of the midwife were overlooked. During the nineteenth century, the emphasis upon racial difference was reinforced by evolutionary theory, and the myth of the 'savage' woman's 'parturition without pain' was put to rhetorical use by health reformers, physicians, and feminists in Europe and North America. Meanwhile, the realities surrounding childbirth in aboriginal communities received little attention from colonial authorities until high infant and maternal death rates began to arouse official concern in the early twentieth century, when they were blamed on aboriginal women's ignorance of healthy child-bearing practices. As part of its 'civilizing mission', the Canadian government adopted an interventionist policy which led, in recent decades, to the practice of evacuating pregnant women to distant hospitals. This policy has had serious social consequences, and resistance on the part of aboriginal women includes the attempt to legitimize a traditional culture of childbirth disregarded throughout the colonization process.

Publication types

  • Historical Article

MeSH terms

  • Acculturation*
  • Canada
  • Civilization / history*
  • Colonialism / history*
  • Female
  • History, 17th Century
  • History, 18th Century
  • History, 19th Century
  • History, 20th Century
  • Humans
  • Inuit / history*
  • Labor, Obstetric*
  • Pregnancy
  • Racial Groups / history*