Maya K'iche women meet Inuit, First Nations peoples to discuss Maternal & Child Health

The Guatemalan women traveled across two provinces & one territory - in just 10 days.


As part of the Maternal, Newborn, and Child Health (MNCH) project in Totonicapán, Guatemala, which is funded by the Government of Canada, Horizons leads reciprocal knowledge exchanges between Canadian and Guatemalan health practitioners and advocates.

These exchanges revolve around two goals: 1) to facilitate the exchange of knowledge and best-practices related to maternal, newborn, and child health which may be of use to Guatemalan and Canadian health practitioners; and 2) to engage Canadians on the importance of Canadian international development and its efforts to improve maternal and child health, while simultaneously providing an opportunity for Canadians and Guatemalans to learn about the health situations of Indigenous peoples living in Canada.

On November 2018, two traditional Indigenous Maya midwives, the Head Nurse of the Totonicapán Health Directorate (DAST), and a health educator with local project partner PIES de Occidente who is also an Indigenous Maya community leader, visited Canada to do just that.

This blog post provides a small glimpse into their whirlwind of an exchange across cities, towns and communities spanning two provinces - and one territory - all over the course of 10 days.

Left to right: Horizons Community Outreach/Communications Coordinator Raúl Scorza; traditional Indigenous Maya K’iche’ midwife Irma Ixcayau; DAST Head Nurse María del Rosario Orozco; traditional Indigenous Maya K’iche’ midwife Margarita Aguilar Puac; and PIES health educator/Indigenous leader Mirna Pretzantzin arriving at Pearson International Airport.

Left to right: Horizons Community Outreach/Communications Coordinator Raúl Scorza; traditional Indigenous Maya K’iche’ midwife Irma Ixcayau; DAST Head Nurse María del Rosario Orozco; traditional Indigenous Maya K’iche’ midwife Margarita Aguilar Puac; and PIES health educator/Indigenous leader Mirna Pretzantzin arriving at Pearson International Airport.

Two Guatemalan participants had the honour and privilege to visit Rankin Inlet, Nunavut through this particular knowledge exchange. Graciously welcomed by Rachel Jones (Acting Manager of Maternal and Newborn Health Services), Cas Connelly (a former Canada-to-Guatemala exchange participant), and their wonderful colleagues at the Kivalliq Wellness Centre, which is part of the Nunanuvt Department of Health’s services in the region, María del Rosario and Margarita had the opportunity to learn about the health situation of Inuit peoples living across Nunavut, and share knowledge and best-practices related to maternal, newborn, and child health.

The group also met with Inuit Elders Johnny Ayaruaq and Monica Ugjuk, with both keepers of cultural knowledge sharing the history of Rankin Inlet as well as the traditional birthing practices of Inuit peoples.

The beauty of Rankin Inlet, Nunavut. Rankin is a primarily a fly-in community, with a population that is predominantly Inuit. Althought it was super cold (-53!), the people of Rankin Inlet and our hosts warmed our hearts!

The beauty of Rankin Inlet, Nunavut. Rankin is a primarily a fly-in community, with a population that is predominantly Inuit. Althought it was super cold (-53!), the people of Rankin Inlet and our hosts warmed our hearts!

Inuit Elder Johnny Ayaruaq shared the history of Rankin Inlet, Nunavut.

Inuit Elder Johnny Ayaruaq shared the history of Rankin Inlet, Nunavut.

Inuit Elder Monica Ugjuk met with the group to share her knowledge on traditional birthing practices of Inuit peoples. She also led a traditional lighting of the Qulliq to celebrate the special visit to Rankin Inlet, Nunavut.

Inuit Elder Monica Ugjuk met with the group to share her knowledge on traditional birthing practices of Inuit peoples. She also led a traditional lighting of the Qulliq to celebrate the special visit to Rankin Inlet, Nunavut.

The group also met with Mary Fredlund (right) to talk about the food security challenges Rankin Inlet faces. Food prices in the Northern regions of Canada are extremely high - with staple food items like milk, bread, and eggs being 2-3 time the price it would be in southern Ontario. On top of being a counselor in the community, Mary also volunteers in organizing the local foodbank, ensuring that families in need have access to nutritious food.

The group also met with Mary Fredlund (right) to talk about the food security challenges Rankin Inlet faces. Food prices in the Northern regions of Canada are extremely high - with staple food items like milk, bread, and eggs being 2-3 time the price it would be in southern Ontario. On top of being a counselor in the community, Mary also volunteers in organizing the local foodbank, ensuring that families in need have access to nutritious food.

The group was also invited to lead a radio program on the community radio station (94.7FM) in Rankin Inlet. During the 2-hour program, with translation from Spanish-to-English-to-Inuktitut, María del Rosario, Margarita, René and Horizons Community Outreach Officer Daniel Quesada talked about the MNCH project and Horizons’ international development initiatives in Central America and Mexico. Folks called in to share a few questions and comments on MNCH!

The group was also invited to lead a radio program on the community radio station (94.7FM) in Rankin Inlet. During the 2-hour program, with translation from Spanish-to-English-to-Inuktitut, María del Rosario, Margarita, René and Horizons Community Outreach Officer Daniel Quesada talked about the MNCH project and Horizons’ international development initiatives in Central America and Mexico. Folks called in to share a few questions and comments on MNCH!

Meanwhile, Mirna and Irma visited several communities in Ontario and Quebec to speak directly with hundreds of Canadians on the challenging MNCH realities in Totonicapán, and how this project is working to address them. Presentations, panels and public engagement opportunities with religious organizations and service clubs, civil society and like-minded groups, educational institutions, public health units and health practitioners, as well as elementary schools, were carried out in Hamilton, Toronto, Oshawa, Peterborough, Cobourg, Kingston, Ottawa and Montreal. The four Guatemalan women reunited to close this unique chapter in the MNCH project’s story by having a meeting with members of the Dibaajimowin Cultural Centre in Northumberland County, where the cultural practices of Indigenous peoples living in Canada and Guatemala were shared.

Mirna and Irma delivered a public presentation at Christ the Servant Church in the village of Cold Springs within Hamilton Township, Ontario. The congregation in this small, rural community has supported the MNCH project since its launch in 2016.

Mirna and Irma delivered a public presentation at Christ the Servant Church in the village of Cold Springs within Hamilton Township, Ontario. The congregation in this small, rural community has supported the MNCH project since its launch in 2016.

Mirna also spoke to Grade 7-8 classes throughout Peterborough that participated in Horizons’ Youth Engagement Program under the MNCH project. Thanks to an ongoing partnership with the Kawartha Pine Ridge Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario local (KPR-ETFO), youth in Ontario’s Kawartha region are engaging in educational activities on social justice and the importance of strengthening MNCH, as well as strategies for youth action on global issues. At the same time, Irma delivered a presentation at the Rotary Club of Ottawa and later met with the East Ottawa Midwives to exchange knowledge and best-practices.

Mirna also spoke to Grade 7-8 classes throughout Peterborough that participated in Horizons’ Youth Engagement Program under the MNCH project. Thanks to an ongoing partnership with the Kawartha Pine Ridge Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario local (KPR-ETFO), youth in Ontario’s Kawartha region are engaging in educational activities on social justice and the importance of strengthening MNCH, as well as strategies for youth action on global issues. At the same time, Irma delivered a presentation at the Rotary Club of Ottawa and later met with the East Ottawa Midwives to exchange knowledge and best-practices.

Left to Right: Cornerstone Family Violence Prevention Centre Child & Youth Counsellor Lucy Caldwell; Mirna Pretzantzin; Irma Ixcayau; Cobourg Police Service Acting Staff Sergeant Brent Allison; Cornerstone Executive Director Nancy Johnston, Horizons Executive Director Patricia Rebolledo, and Raúl Scorza. The Cornerstone and Cobourg Police Service representatives joined Horizons on a knowledge exchange to Guatemala in September focusing on the relation between violence against women and MNCH issues in Totonicapán.

Left to Right: Cornerstone Family Violence Prevention Centre Child & Youth Counsellor Lucy Caldwell; Mirna Pretzantzin; Irma Ixcayau; Cobourg Police Service Acting Staff Sergeant Brent Allison; Cornerstone Executive Director Nancy Johnston, Horizons Executive Director Patricia Rebolledo, and Raúl Scorza. The Cornerstone and Cobourg Police Service representatives joined Horizons on a knowledge exchange to Guatemala in September focusing on the relation between violence against women and MNCH issues in Totonicapán.

A panel consisting of Lucy, Mirna, Irma, Brent and Nancy packed Victoria Hall in Cobourg, Ontario for a “lunch and learn” session on gender violence and its impacts on maternal and child health. More than 70 people attended this event and learned not only about gender violence and MNCH challenges in Totonicapán, but also how the MNCH project is dedicating efforts to eliminating violence against women - including work with male Indigenous community leaders and gender equality topics being covered through the project’s mass health promotion campaign.

A panel consisting of Lucy, Mirna, Irma, Brent and Nancy packed Victoria Hall in Cobourg, Ontario for a “lunch and learn” session on gender violence and its impacts on maternal and child health. More than 70 people attended this event and learned not only about gender violence and MNCH challenges in Totonicapán, but also how the MNCH project is dedicating efforts to eliminating violence against women - including work with male Indigenous community leaders and gender equality topics being covered through the project’s mass health promotion campaign.

Mirna and Irma also gave a public presentation at the Peterborough Public Library where they spoke to their experiences, struggles and successes in helping save the lives of Maya K’iche’ women and children through the MNCH project. The event was held in partnership with the Kawartha World Issues Centre (KWIC) and KPR-ETFO.

Mirna and Irma also gave a public presentation at the Peterborough Public Library where they spoke to their experiences, struggles and successes in helping save the lives of Maya K’iche’ women and children through the MNCH project. The event was held in partnership with the Kawartha World Issues Centre (KWIC) and KPR-ETFO.

KWIC was also instrumental in involving two local Indigenous youth during the public event - with one helping MC the presentation and the other performing an opening hand drum song - as well as inviting Elder Shirley Williams to officially welcome Mirna and Irma to Michi Saagiig territory.

KWIC was also instrumental in involving two local Indigenous youth during the public event - with one helping MC the presentation and the other performing an opening hand drum song - as well as inviting Elder Shirley Williams to officially welcome Mirna and Irma to Michi Saagiig territory.

Mirna and Irma’s next stop during the exchange was the Kingston Community Health Centre, where dozens of health practitioners gathered to listen to their stories, experiences and knowledge. The session relied heavily on the planning and organization by four former Canada-to-Guatemala exchange participants in the Kingston area. Mirna and Irma were welcomed by Laurel Claus-Johnson to Anishinaabe and Haudenosaunee territory, and all attendants - to the Guatemalan women’s delight - were offered local Indigenous food!

Mirna and Irma’s next stop during the exchange was the Kingston Community Health Centre, where dozens of health practitioners gathered to listen to their stories, experiences and knowledge. The session relied heavily on the planning and organization by four former Canada-to-Guatemala exchange participants in the Kingston area. Mirna and Irma were welcomed by Laurel Claus-Johnson to Anishinaabe and Haudenosaunee territory, and all attendants - to the Guatemalan women’s delight - were offered local Indigenous food!

After returning from Nunavut, María del Rosario and Margarita joined Mirna for an interview on their work and the MNCH project conducted by the Ontario Council for International Cooperation (OCIC) in Toronto, which was followed by a brief conversation with members of Birth Mark Support - a group of doulas who help individuals and their families navigate the infant and maternity care systems in Toronto. With Irma heading on to Montreal for more presentations, the three remaining Guatemalan women then traveled to the City of Hamilton Public Health unit for a session focusing on maternal and child nutrition. This session was organized by a participant in the upcoming Canada-to-Guatemala knowledge exchange. Pictured above are Margarita, María del Rosario and Mirna with Birth Mark Support members.

After returning from Nunavut, María del Rosario and Margarita joined Mirna for an interview on their work and the MNCH project conducted by the Ontario Council for International Cooperation (OCIC) in Toronto, which was followed by a brief conversation with members of Birth Mark Support - a group of doulas who help individuals and their families navigate the infant and maternity care systems in Toronto. With Irma heading on to Montreal for more presentations, the three remaining Guatemalan women then traveled to the City of Hamilton Public Health unit for a session focusing on maternal and child nutrition. This session was organized by a participant in the upcoming Canada-to-Guatemala knowledge exchange. Pictured above are Margarita, María del Rosario and Mirna with Birth Mark Support members.

The exchange was drawing near its end with a public presentation at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology (UOIT) in Oshawa, Ontario, which was organized in close collaboration with UOIT’s Faculty of Social Sciences and Humanities. After being introduced by a UOIT professor who set the political and social context in which this project is taking place, students and community members engaged with María del Rosario, Mirna and Margarita’s stories and experiences on their efforts to improve MNCH for Totonicapán’s Maya K’iche’ population.

The exchange was drawing near its end with a public presentation at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology (UOIT) in Oshawa, Ontario, which was organized in close collaboration with UOIT’s Faculty of Social Sciences and Humanities. After being introduced by a UOIT professor who set the political and social context in which this project is taking place, students and community members engaged with María del Rosario, Mirna and Margarita’s stories and experiences on their efforts to improve MNCH for Totonicapán’s Maya K’iche’ population.

Finally, all four Guatemalan women met with members of the Dibaajimowin Cultural Centre in Northumberland. This provided an opportunity for the exchange participants to reflect on all they had learned so far, which included learning about the impacts of colonialism on Indigenous peoples living in Canada and their resilient struggles in the face of its current manifestations.

Finally, all four Guatemalan women met with members of the Dibaajimowin Cultural Centre in Northumberland. This provided an opportunity for the exchange participants to reflect on all they had learned so far, which included learning about the impacts of colonialism on Indigenous peoples living in Canada and their resilient struggles in the face of its current manifestations.

Marsha Smoke, with the Dibaajimowin Cultural Centre, helped organize the meeting between Indigenous peoples living in Canada and Guatemala. She and her colleagues shared their knowledge about cultural practices, and despite differing contexts, the participants noted the similarities between the worldviews of Indigenous peoples in the North and South.

Marsha Smoke, with the Dibaajimowin Cultural Centre, helped organize the meeting between Indigenous peoples living in Canada and Guatemala. She and her colleagues shared their knowledge about cultural practices, and despite differing contexts, the participants noted the similarities between the worldviews of Indigenous peoples in the North and South.

Diane Thomas (left), chair of the Dibaajimowin Cultural Centre, and her colleagues bade farewell to Irma, Mirna, Margarita and María del Rosario as the knowledge exchange drew to a close.

Diane Thomas (left), chair of the Dibaajimowin Cultural Centre, and her colleagues bade farewell to Irma, Mirna, Margarita and María del Rosario as the knowledge exchange drew to a close.

Daniel Quesada