Fostering Reconciliation: Investing in Indigenous-Centred Early Childhood Education
September 07, 2016
During The Tragically Hip’s final concert in Kingston last month, lead singer Gord Downie took a moment to reflect on the situation facing many Indigenous peoples in Canada. He emphasized the need to capitalize on the current momentum to take action. During his powerful callout to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the Canadian population at large, Downie pointed to our collective lack of knowledge of issues facing the North and Indigenous people. He spoke of the urgent need for change—and there is clear evidence to support this.
Many First Nations, Inuit, and Métis individuals and communities across the country face significant social, financial, and institutional challenges that have kept them from achieving their potential. As of 2010, roughly two-in-five Indigenous children in Canada were living below the poverty line, and the Indigenous population at large is over-represented in government care.1 Indigenous communities, in particular, face severe structural barriers related to education that have led, in part, to their people routinely having lower scores in numeracy and literacy and being more likely than non-Aboriginals to repeat primary school, drop out of school at an early age, and be unemployed. This has led to a cycle of intergenerational poverty and inequality.
Beyond the simple fact that the conditions that many Indigenous children face are unacceptable, there is a real economic disadvantage in not investing in Indigenous kids. The Indigenous population has been growing at about three times the rate of the non-Aboriginal population. It is expected that about 300,000 Indigenous young people will enter the Canadian labour force from 2007 to 2022, and it is in all our interests to create the conditions that foster their full participation in the Canadian economy.2 Employing Indigenous people at a rate equivalent to the non-Aboriginal population alone would boost the economy of Saskatchewan by an estimated $1.8 billion by 2035.3 In the face of an aging overall population in Canada, the economic growth that we are calling for may depend on our ability to more strongly engage Indigenous people, particularly the next generation.
While there is no silver bullet, experts have noted repeatedly that high-quality, Indigenous-centred early childhood education helps young Indigenous children develop a sense of belonging and well-being, and provides them with the foundation to cope with the challenging conditions they often face. A strong and relevant foundation allows them to thrive socially, emotionally, and academically. National Aboriginal organizations, such as the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami and the Assembly of First Nations, as well as the territorial governments, have provided recommendations to create early childhood development programming that starts from an Aboriginal context and perspective. The recurring themes among their recommendations include the creation of a model that is child-centred, family-focused, and community-driven.
Despite the recognized value of programs built along these lines, evidence shows that there has been insufficient investment in Indigenous early childhood education programming. As recently as 2009, it was estimated that fewer than one-in-five Indigenous children had access to any sort of early childhood education programs.4 Given the lack of universal access, The Conference Board of Canada’s Centre for the North, guided by Indigenous, government, and private-sector leaders, will be undertaking an analysis of available early childhood education services in remote regions, their longer-term impact on Indigenous children, and possible solutions for improving program accessibility.
Indigenous groups across the country have commended Downie for lending his powerful voice to this issue and for putting a spotlight on what is one of the most difficult public policy challenges in Canada. The weight of evidence would suggest that they are correct—there is a clear need for action that will benefit everyone. What better way could there be to promote reconciliation than by providing the resources and opportunities for Indigenous youth to grow and learn in an environment that celebrates their cultures, languages, and traditions while preparing them to realize their potential within Canadian society and the economy? How governments direct their attention and resources to these issues in the coming years will have a significant impact on the future of Canada—not just for Indigenous people, but for all Canadians.