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Decolonizing and demystifying the needs of remote Northern menstruators

New data released in groundbreaking report as ‘period poverty’ addressed through products shipped to the North
Moon Time Connections founder Nicole White, right, with a volunteer at a Saskatchewan packing party, where donated products are counted and boxed to be shipped north. Photo courtesy Moon Time Connections

“How do you take something that’s broadly good, and tailor it to the local context?” asks Fariya Mohiuddin, senior program officer, tax and policy (global) at the International Budget Partnership.

This is a key piece of the puzzle when dealing with structural issues in remote Northern Indigenous communities.

“Often, the book needs to be rewritten,” she says.

This is what Nicole White and her team at Moon Time Connections (MTC), the federal government, and scholars at the University of Saskatchewan are attempting to do when tackling the issue of inequality of access to menstrual products in Canada.

It’s what is colloquially referred to as “period poverty.”

According to a groundbreaking study conducted last year in partnership with MTC, the University of Saskatchewan, and local community partners, 74 per cent of Indigenous women and girls living in remote communities in Canada described themselves as having difficulty in accessing sanitary products “often” or “sometimes” in their communities. A further 24 per cent reported being unable to get the necessary products at all (either being unavailable or out of stock at community stores), and 23 per cent indicated that even if available, those products are generally unaffordable.

A single box of tampons can cost up to $24 in a remote community, and if it comes down to a choice between essential items such as food, rent, or buying menstrual products, hard decisions need to be made that leave females at a distinct disadvantage — and this does not take into account additional factors such as the wage gap.

White and her team are leading the charge by raising awareness, including in Parliament. The preliminary findings of the first study on the subject, presented by a delegation to the House of Commons Standing Committee on the Status of Women last June, were later published in a report titled ‘Let’s Talk about it, Period: Achieving Menstrual Equity in Canada’ in November 2023.

“Until today,” reads the press release from MTC, “there has been no research, scholarly or otherwise, into the specific nature of menstrual inequity in Indigenous communities in Canada, nor has there been any research focusing on the unique needs of menstruators in remote and rural locations. This despite the fact that research has demonstrated location is a key indicator for period inequity and price disparities are widely documented.”

The lack of the raw data before last year was a barrier to addressing period poverty in Northern Indigenous communities, such as those in Nunavut and the NWT.

“There is deep community mistrust of information gathering, particularly in health-related matters, and the extraction of data/research…” White says. “Indigenous peoples have long been studied, but not heard and supported.”

Gathering the necessary data also involves access to and trust within Indigenous communities that is often problematic due to historical abuses of population studies, compounded by cultural taboos.

“The only reason this [research] was possible,” says White, “was because of strong relationships with Northern partners,” including a full spectrum of community relationships, such as schools, health providers, local Elders and leaders, etc.

“I’m really proud of the work we did,” she says.

Not projecting virtues

In addition to collecting and disseminating the information, MTC, a not-for-profit organization that gets most of its funding from the Government of Canada, “is the only national Indigenous-led organization” providing the sanitary products to these communities. MTC’s primary objective is to offer a range of menstruation products, free of charge, and ship them to remote Northern communities. Nunavummiut can request products by contacting the Ontario Chapter-Lead of MTC on the True North Aid website.

“One of Moon Time Connections’ key principles,” reads the final report, titled An Assessment of Menstrual-Related Needs in Northern Communities, “is to ensure mindfulness to not project our own virtues and prescribe solutions that are unwanted or inappropriate for Indigenous communities. For example, one might feel the instinctive solution would be reusable cups. However, cups can be difficult to maintain if clean tap water is unavailable, as is the case for many remote Northern communities. This principle is essential to serve communities effectively and with dignity and ensure that the products being shipped are being used and reflect preferences of menstruators. Menstrual product availability questions were included for a deeper understanding of the shortages experienced in remote Northern communities.”

MTC also invests in going into remote communities and fostering an inclusive community of open dialogue in order to best educate and serve menstruators’ needs. This includes a full range of menstrual products (disposable pads, tampons, cloth pads, period underwear, menstrual cups and menstrual discs).

“We give them something to try, and they decide what works for them,” says White. “We try and meet people where they’re at. Being able to touch something demystifies it… we’re using a de-colonized lens to support menstruators in remote communities.”

In this way, remote Indigenous communities might have first time exposure to reusable products.

“The great part about this [community engagement] was finding out there was a desire around reusables,” explains White.

Once it was determined there was an interest, MTC and policymakers can then design products and programs around the community.

“You solve the problem for everyone and have the necessary equity impact by making the products free, including sustainable options,” says Mohiuddin. “If you think about efficiency and efficacy of policy, that’s proper bang for your buck.”

In terms of price point, the initial investment in reusables might make legislators and consumers balk, but the quality of the product, the continuing use and value, and the long-term savings has MTC encouraging Indigenous menstruators to try an initial pair of period panties.

“Clearly, if people like something, they’ll come back for more,” says White. “We’re[allowing] people to explore and find what works for them.” An investment in reusable products might appear to be cost-prohibitive, but in remote communities, a reusable item can be more practical than relying on potentially interrupted deliveries of one-time use sanitary items, which add up over time. This is not to mention the impact on the environment in areas that might not have the necessary waste disposal sites, which is often problematic in Northern communities.

Ripple effect

“Menstrual products are still considered a luxury [item]… if we can provide [them], that provides space [that would otherwise] be used in [a menstruator’s] monthly budgeting. That’s one less thing for them and their family to worry about… This is why I love what I do,” enthuses White. “How powerful that we can provide that space to talk about it, and its not shrouded in shame… it creates ripple effects for discussion for further generations.”

For now, White and her team at MTC are concentrating on expanding the network and discussion.

The report submitted to Parliament contains 11 recommendations.

“Because of our advice,” comments White, proudly, “the first three of those points were focusing on Indigenous peoples.

“I think we are on our way to having this conversation within our nation for sure… We’ve got a ways to go for [this issue] to be explained to all leadership, to all members [of Canadian society].”

White and her collaborators are certainly making inroads in this context, and particularly with the women that sustain these Northern Indigenous communities.

“People get hung up on process,” says Mohiuddin of policymakers and those attempting work in the Indigenous context. “[They] don’t think enough about ‘What are we trying to achieve? And how can we get there in the current circumstances?’ It’s very Western to get so stuck in needing to follow the process by the book.”

Kira Wronska Dorward

About the Author: Kira Wronska Dorward

I attended Trinity College as an undergraduate at the University of Toronto, graduating in 2012 as a Specialist in History. In 2014 I successfully attained a Master of Arts in Modern History from UofT..
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