When Christina Buffalo was pregnant with her baby girl Ada, her mom suggested she reach out to the Maskawcis Elder Mentoring Program for additional support.
“Here in the city, where I am living right now, it’s kind of hard to get a hold of elders,” Buffalo said. “Even ones I’m related to, so it’s just kind of nice to have that extra resource.”
Before the pandemic, elders would be available at the Primary Care Network in Wetaskiwin, Alta. When the coronavirus made its way to Alberta, it was too risky for the seniors to be at the centre in person. So it was put on hiatus for almost a year. Now the service is back, and being offered virtually and through phone calls.
“It just felt really good to talk to her,” Buffalo said.
She added even that connection goes a long way. The elder she would ask her how she was doing, and suggested things for her to try.
“(She) was being very much a kokum (grandmother) about it,” Buffalo said. “Just reassuring me that everything would be alright, and that she would be there as a support if I needed her.
“It helps me for guidance — that I am actually doing things right — like making choices that are healthy for myself and my baby, making sure I am carrying on those traditions in a good way and that I can pass them on to her.”
Cree elder Muriel Lee has been a part of the mentoring program for years. She is happy to be available for expectant parents, even if it is virtually.
“I heard they are missing us because we haven’t been able to be there because of COVID,” Lee said. “Right now the program is beginning on the telephone, they are calling us or some of them are facetiming us. So it’s starting to pick up that way again, but I imagine it’s going to take a little while for that to be the norm.”
“The concern on my part is that the young moms are removed from their culture, because they are products of residential schools,” Lee said.
Lee said she strengthens mothers by telling them “little” stories.
“It’s really important to try and teach young people, so you connect them with those believes and those energies,” Lee said. “That is what I try to do here, and I just tell them little stories, to help them become strong parents.
“Just giving the mom a pat on her hand, giving her a smile, something that all we can do, but those actions have power.
“I wish I had that kind of support when I was having my children.”
Primary Care Network’s Bonnie Bolton said when the elders were at the clinic it could make a big difference for parents.
“Some of the moms might not have spousal support, might not have support from parents or family, and it just kind of fill in what was missing in prenatal care,” Bolton said.
“I think for younger moms to have that insight, so (if) they don’t have their moms available or their kokums available, it’s just nice to have that other support.
“Sometimes it’s harder to talk to family than it is to a stranger too, and to be able to have that here is a amazing.”
Richard Oster is a community-based researcher with University of Alberta who leads the program. Oster said he is relieved to see it available to new moms once again.
“The elders are someone who understand context. They are from the same community, they have been there before, they have raised children before, so they can really relate to the elders,” Oster said.
Oster said they were looking to expand the program to other communities, but the pandemic has delayed the momentum. The hope is there will more programs like this in the near future.
“What I learned is you can’t have strong and healthy individuals in communities if you can’t have a strong and healthy connection to culture. That is where all the knowledge is, identity and self-esteem.
“They would offer any support that the mom or dad needs, so really meeting them where they are at and we did some early qualitative research to understand the impact these elders have on these moms and the response was overwhelmingly positive,” Oster said.
Buffalo feels that positivity too. She has never met the elder she spoke to in person, but when people can safely meet again she hopes to introduce herself, and her baby girl who just over a month old now.
Buffalo said she can see “just how important that culture connection is, and what it can mean to a lot of people to just have somebody there that you know cares.”
“I am looking forward to eventually meeting this elder in person.”