It was early in the morning and the room was still dark as Joy Thunder found herself head down, crying into a mattress.

 She hadn’t heard the door open — or anyone come in, for that matter — but she knew the familiar touch of little hands and little feet as they climbed upon her back.

Turning around to face the climber, Joy Thunder’s eyes met her daughter’s.

The little girl held a look of concern. Sensing her mother’s pain, she wrapped her arms around her. Both mother and daughter lay there in an embrace: the younger comforting, the older crying.

It’s Joy Thunder’s daughter, Zanyiah Rae Thunder, that continues to keep her grounded.

“I don’t know where I would be today if it wasn’t for her being in my life.”

Joy Thunder, 21, is a member of the Whitefish Lake First Nation, a small reservation 120 km north of Slave Lake, Alta. At 18, she realized she was pregnant. The father, also from the reserve, has never met his two-year-old daughter.

With the help of her parents, Joy Thunder raises her daughter while she completes high school. She hopes to graduate this upcoming June.

Her story is only one of many among Aboriginal teen mothers in Canada.

According to Statistics Canada, 12 per cent of Aboriginal girls aged 15-19 living on reserve are teen mothers. Off reserve, that number is eight per cent. For non-Aboriginal teens, it drops to 1.3 per cent.

Education required

Dr. Angela Mashford-Pringle is a specialist in Aboriginal early childhood development at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto, Ont. She says the teen pregnancy rates found in Aboriginal communities are due to both the lack of sexual health education and access to birth control.

“When [Aboriginal teen girls] do become pregnant, they don’t know the symptoms of pregnancy as easily as on reserve versus off reserve,” Mashford-Pringle says.

This can contribute to early childhood development problems, such as Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder or abnormal baby birth weights.

And Mashford-Pringle says the increasing population is putting added strain on Aboriginal communities that are already underserviced.

“We have a very young population and we don’t necessarily have the programs and services to actually help those people.”

Access to childcare is particularly limited on reserve, so young parents often seek help from grandparents and even great-grandparents – who may already have their own concerns or health issues.

Despite the stress this can bring to communities, Mashford-Pringle says one should consider the Aboriginal perspective.

Instead of seeing babies as burdens, she explains, Aboriginal people see them as blessings. Traditional Indigenous teachings describe babies as gifts from the Creator.

“There is something that is coming with that baby to teach us something, that’s part of why you have children,” Mashford-Pringle says.

Babies motivate, not hinder

Patricia Jones, CEO of Calgary’s Catholic Family Services, agrees. As a partner to the Louise Dean Centre, CFS helps young parents complete high school.

“Getting pregnant is what got them back on track,”explains Jones.

According to Statistics Canada, 12 per cent of Aboriginal girls aged 15-19 living on reserve are teen mothers. Joy Thunder’s story is only one example. Photo by Nicole Auger

In many cases, teen parents – regardless of their background – weren’t attending school before becoming a parent, Jones says. Now, they’re pursuing an education.

Dr. Mashford-Pringle also sees some of the benefits in young pregnancy, claiming that the often-negative connotations stem from Western societies’ way of thinking.

“Western society denounces girls who have babies before they’re in their 20s because they want them to follow the capitalist route,” Mashford-Pringle says. “They want them to go to school, get higher education. They’re supposed to get employment, then get married and have children, or at least be in a committed relationship by the time they’re having children. That’s the sense you get from western society.”

Mashford-Pringle says Aboriginal people tend to do the latter first – but neither path is better than the other.

“It just depends on your life path and the circumstances around you.”

The Louise Dean Centre, located in Northwest Calgary, is open to young parents seeking help. The school offers childcare and has social workers on site. This past year, 40 young mothers graduated from the program.

On reserve resources

Joy Thunder says she would love to see a program like the Louise Dean Centre in her community. But for now, Joy Thunder is oftentimes left feeling guilty leaving her daughter with her mother, who gets sick often.

This causes her to sometimes miss class to avoid being an added strain to her family.

Joy Thunder says, even if she is sick and tired, she will still get up and keep my daughter, when she should really be resting.

In these smaller Aboriginal communities getting an education is a necessity. The lack of jobs and resources limits community members’ opportunities and getting a higher education is often the only route to adult independence.

Thunder says she doesn’t know how she is going to complete her education but if she can’t continue, she hopes to at least have her daughter in a good school when she is older.

Update: By the time this story was published online, Joy Thunder’s mother became sick and was no longer able to care for her granddaughter while Joy Thunder attended school. Joy Thunder is now living in Edmonton, Alta., with her daughter and a relative. She hopes the relocation will provide more opportunities for both herself and her daughter.

nauger@cjournal.ca

The editor responsible for this article is Brett Luft and can be contacted at bluft@cjournal.ca