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Gearing Up

Goal: Indigenous Children Thrive

The legacy of the residential school system and the Sixties Scoop, in addition to the broader history of colonialism in Canada have affected Indigenous peoples’ ability to experience healthy family relationships, their sense of belonging, self-esteem, and knowledge of their languages and cultures. This trauma is passed down through generations.

Outcomes we want:

#19 First Nations, Métis and Inuit children and families are physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually well

#20 First Nations, Métis and Inuit children participate in and feel proud of their traditions, languages, cultures, and identities

#21 First Nations, Métis and Inuit children are engaged in and contribute to their families, communities and cultures

#22 First Nations, Métis and Inuit families and communities are supported to be self-determining in defining and meeting the needs of their children, families and communities

#23 Ontario service providers and governments and Indigenous communities respond to local needs and priorities and are accountable to communities

Why it matters:

Colonialism led to the loss of culture, which resulted in both historic and ongoing emotional trauma and poverty. However, despite colonialism, First Nations, Métis and Inuit cultures and traditions have survived. Traditional knowledge keepers have worked to keep the cultures and languages alive. Indigenous children and youth are reclaiming pride in their identities.

The children and youth of today and tomorrow cannot grow up in health and safety if the traumas of the past are not addressed, and the cycle of intergenerational trauma remains unbroken and unhealed. Too many First Nations parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents are still suffering.” Chiefs of Ontariol89

There is great diversity among First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples in Ontario, but they share ways of knowing about wellbeing, including:

Gearing Up approaches health, healing and wellness from a wholistic perspective. It recognizes Indigenous ways of knowing that explain the passages of life through a continuum from childhood and youth to adulthood and seniority, and that people have evolving needs through the life cycle. It respects Indigenous ways of knowing that are grounded in the importance of meaning, purpose, belonging and hope, and where wellbeing cannot be separated from culture.

Snapshot of Ontario:

Indigenous communities in Ontario are young, growing and diverse

The Indigenous population is one of the youngest and fastest growing segments of Ontario’s population. A total of 25 per cent of Indigenous people in Ontario are under the age of 15. The majority (84 per cent) of Indigenous people in Ontario live off-reserve. The population of Indigenous people in Ontario is 301,430, with roughly 253,400 living off-reserve.92 There are 133 First Nations communities in Ontario. There is diversity across First Nations, Métis and Inuit communities in terms of how they express cultural traditions.

Deeply embedded systemic inequities lead to disparities in outcomes

While many Indigenous peoples are achieving success in school, the workplace and their communities, significant gaps and barriers still exist. These challenges include lack of access to the basic determinants of health, high rates of poverty in Indigenous communities, high rates of complex physical and mental health problems among Indigenous young people, underfunded infrastructure, and an over-representation of Indigenous children in the child welfare and justice systems. Suicide rates are disproportionately high in many Indigenous communities and affect children as young as 10 years old. Inuit communities have the highest rates of suicide in the world.

The number of Indigenous children in child welfare services today is linked to intergenerational trauma. It also demonstrates that racism, bias and lack of cultural understanding are still deeply embedded in our institutions.

No child should be removed from their family due to poverty and poor housing93 – Ontario Federation of Indigenous Friendship Centres, Ontario Native Women’s Association and the Métis Nation of Ontario

Cultural traditions are strong and central to wellbeing

Colonial systems and practices continue to have complex impacts on Indigenous cultural traditions, practices, and intergenerational knowledge transmission. Despite this, Indigenous parents, families and communities have shown an overwhelming level of resilience that has kept their culture and traditions alive and thriving. Indigenous ways of knowing provide people with connections to the land and the elements.94 And while there is diversity across cultures, what is consistent is the connection of culture to spiritual wellbeing.

Transforming relationships for improved outcomes

Ontario is working with First Nations, Métis, Inuit and urban Indigenous partners to implement the Ontario Indigenous Children and Youth Strategy (OICYS) together. The OICYS focuses on:

#19 First Nations, Métis and Inuit children and families are physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually well

Wellbeing for First Nations, Métis and Inuit children is an all-encompassing, wholistic concept.95 Achieving balance across the cognitive, physical, emotional, social, communication and spiritual domains is an interactive, lifelong journey of learning and doing that is essential for the wellbeing of Indigenous children in Ontario. Indigenous spiritual wellness is grounded in cultural connections, and so for Indigenous children in the middle years, participation in cultural learning and activities can inspire healthy choices and healthier living.96

For Indigenous children, physical activity often involves cultural activity and land-based practices.97 It has been recognized that “physical activity is cultural activity” and that these acts lead to wellbeing.98

Spiritual wellness and connection to culture is central to a child’s overall emotional, social, physical and cognitive development. This development is not exclusive to childhood and continues throughout all the stages of a person’s life (childhood, youth, adulthood and seniority).99

Helpful Resources

The Aboriginal Children’s Health and Well-Being Measure was developed from the perspective of First Nations children in Wiikwemkoong. It gives children voice in their own health assessment. Data on health and wellbeing guide community policies, health services planning and evaluation and is an important tool to support communities on their path to health and wellbeing.

The strength and resiliency of First Nations, Métis and Inuit people are embedded in their language, culture and traditions, and experienced through strong bonds with family, extended family, Elders, Senators, traditional knowledge keepers and the community as a whole.

Supporting this outcome involves:

Understanding and promoting wholistic wellness

Promoting cultural and traditional connections, and promoting the sharing and transmission of Indigenous ways of knowing and being has the power to help Indigenous children and families thrive. Indigenous knowledge teaches that wellness and spirit are inseparable.100 Efforts to support the spiritual development and wellness of First Nations, Métis and Inuit children need to be grounded in cultural connections, cultural experiences, cultural identities, and cultural relationships.

Ensuring access to strengths-based, culturally relevant and responsive programs and services

Supporting wellbeing for First Nations, Métis and Inuit children and families requires routine and regular access to high quality programs and services. These programs and services must be culturally relevant and responsive, accessible and wholistic to promote and strengthen the wellbeing, security, interests and identities of all First Nations, Métis and Inuit children and their families. We know that programs and services that best support Indigenous children and families to thrive are those that demonstrate a commitment to prevention and strengths-based approaches, and that promote connections with community, culture and tradition. Enabling strong communities and Indigenous community-based organizations to deliver programs and services can ensure that the unique interests of those they serve are addressed.

Acknowledging past and present context and inequality

A precursor to wellbeing for Indigenous children and families is acknowledging and appreciating the immense impact of colonization, racism and inequity. Supporting wellbeing, as a result, must acknowledge the systemic inequities Indigenous children and their families face and include supporting them to navigate present-day realities and find balance through cultural and spiritual connections. 101

#20 First Nations, Métis and Inuit children participate in and feel proud of their traditions, languages, cultures and identities

Culture, language and traditions are central to the wellbeing of First Nations, Metis and Inuit peoples. These are the pillars that enable Indigenous children to thrive.

Culture is the part that makes our spirit flourish, grow and evolve into the person we become.102

Research has shown that children who feel they belong to a cultural community tend to have higher academic motivation and achievement, fewer mental health problems, and take fewer health risks.103 For Indigenous children, immersing in their culture and participating in traditional activities and practices support the development of pride, identity and spirit, and have far-reaching, lifelong impacts.

There are vast differences across, and within First Nations, Inuit and Métis cultures. Yet many Ontarians do not understand or appreciate these differences. This type of confusion and lack of awareness undermines respect for the diversity of Indigenous cultural identities. It can also undermine a child’s sense of self at a critical time when they are beginning to develop their cultural (or spiritual) identity.

To support healing and reconciliation, all Indigenous children need opportunities to participate in cultural activities in safe and positive ways. They need to feel pride in their cultures, and feel safe, supported and valued in their identities as Indigenous peoples in Ontario. They need opportunities to learn and practice their Indigenous languages, both inside and outside of the school system.

Culture and language are very important. I want them to learn English and French but also Inuktitut. I am proud when they want to share their culture.

Parent interviewed by the Ottawa Inuit Children’s Centre

Supporting this outcome involves:

Enabling Indigenous children to connect to culture in meaningful ways

It is important for First Nations, Métis and Inuit children and families to have culturally safe spaces to learn traditional teachings.104 Children need opportunities to share in and feel proud of how they express themselves through these cultural traditions and practices.105 This is especially important for children who are removed from their families and placed into care outside of their communities, where the threat to their cultural safety is high. More efforts are needed to support traditional knowledge keepers to help children build cultural knowledge and pride.

To live a good life, one should know who they are and where they come from, have access to services and live life not worrying about negative stigma.

Inuk youth

Supporting Indigenous languages to thrive

Language is one of the most tangible symbols of culture and group identity. It is not only a means of communication, but a link which connects children with their past and grounds their social, emotional and spiritual vitality. Language also embodies and imparts cultural beliefs and worldviews. Yet almost 90 per cent of First Nations children under 12 years of age cannot speak their own First Nations language at a fluent or intermediate level.106 We need to work together to support Indigenous peoples to preserve language and pass it on to their children. Language and cultural knowledge can give Indigenous children a strong sense of who they are, which can help them to develop resiliency and support school achievement.107

The original language is the most expressive communication of the spirit, emotions, thinking, behaviour and actions of the people. Language is the “voice” of the culture and therefore the true and most expressive means for the transmission of the original way of life and way of being in the world.

Elder Jim Dumont, National Native Addictions Partnership Foundation

Collective recognition and celebration of First Nation, Métis and Inuit cultures

Deliberate efforts are needed to debunk stereotypes and reflect First Nation, Métis and Inuit symbols, practices and people through all aspects of life (programs, services, and systems) in Ontario. Examples include:

What the Data Says

Thirty-four per cent of off-reserve Indigenous children ages 6-14 years in Ontario speak primary Indigenous language. (Statistics Canada) Only five per cent of Indigenous people in Ontario identify an Indigenous language as their mother tongue.

Helpful Resources

Recognizing the importance of supporting cultural learning and development is consistent with the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). Article 13 of UNDRIP acknowledges the rights of Indigenous peoples to revitalize, use, develop and transmit to future generations their histories, languages, oral traditions and philosophies. 108

#21 First Nations, Métis and Inuit children are engaged in and contribute to their families, communities and cultures

Indigenous children are navigating what it means to be Indigenous in today’s world, and they have a unique voice to bring to the success of their families, communities and cultures. They are also navigating mainstream Canadian culture, popular culture, and social media, and considering future school and career goals. Indigenous children in their middle years may be required to “master” the contradictions of two or more cultures – the mainstream Canadian culture and the traditional culture/s of their ancestors.

Walking this path requires support for Indigenous children to build skills, supportive relationships and confidence to have a voice in decisions that affect them. First Nations, Métis and Inuit children need to feel they are contributing, their voices are heard, and they have opportunities to develop into spiritually, mentally, physically, and emotionally healthy leaders with strong cultural, family and traditional bonds. Children also need support to express themselves and ask for help when needed.

Stop telling our children and youth what they need and start asking them what they need.

Community participant from Six Nations submission for the Ontario Indigenous Children and Youth Strategy

Culture-based education is grounded in traditional knowledge, as shared by Clan Mothers, Elders, Senators, traditional knowledge keepers and faith keepers, and protects the ownership and integrity of traditional knowledge.

I want my kid to be a kid for as long as she can, and I know that she has a better chance for that if she has good friends to do things with.

Parent interviewed by the Ottawa Inuit Children’s Centre

Supporting this outcome involves:

Cultivating young, resilient community leaders

Efforts are needed to support Indigenous children as leaders and contributors to their families, communities, and cultures. To support this, children need opportunities to talk about their experiences, hopes and dreams. They need help to build resilience, self-confidence, problem-solving skills and other life skills that will enable them to thrive and contribute to decision making at home and in their communities.

Providing children with opportunities to practice traditional ways with their families and with Elders

Children need a strong sense of belonging in their family, as well as opportunities to contribute to their family wellbeing, community and culture. This may be to go on the land, learn traditional practices and storytelling, and to participate in social activities with family. It also means opportunities for children and families to learn traditional knowledge and practices and build relationships with Elders, Senators, traditional knowledge keepers and others within the community. Elders, Senators, Clan Mothers and other traditional knowledge keepers are the teachers – they provide guidance, support, knowledge and a window into Indigenous histories.

Supporting Indigenous children to succeed in school

Indigenous children have lower graduation rates than the non-Indigenous population. There are systemic reasons for this – jurisdictional issues, underfunding, history of the residential school system, and discrimination. Indigenous families talk of racism, judgment and lack of support in the education system. Children need after-school homework support, and culturally relevant and responsive opportunities to learn the skills they need to succeed. They need to feel they are safe and supported at school, and that school is where they belong and want to be.

I want them to be able to say ‘I can do this.’ ”

Inuit Parent

I teach my children to talk more and to not be afraid to ask for help. Get them to use their voice!

First Nations parent

#22 First Nations, Métis and Inuit families and communities are supported to be self-determining in defining and meeting the needs of their children, families and communities

The wellbeing of First Nation, Métis and Inuit children is grounded in their connection to strong families and communities. Indigenous concepts of family include the recognition that family includes not only parents and siblings, but also the extended family. Elders, Senators, and traditional knowledge keepers are key parts of the broader community. First Nations, Inuit and Métis communities recognize the value that this broad network of kin provides to their children.

What Ontario is Doing

Through the Ontario Indigenous Children and Youth Strategy, children and families will have greater access to programs that protect, promote and strengthen the wellbeing, interests and identities of all First Nations, Métis and Inuit children and families. The Ontario government is responding to this call for culturally appropriate services that are tracked through culturally appropriate monitoring and evaluation approaches.

Researchers109 note that the history of abuses experienced in residential schools has negatively affected parenting capacity and contributed to the over-representation of Indigenous children in the child welfare system. Misinterpretations of traditional Indigenous ways of parenting may also play a role in children being removed from their homes. Unfortunately, this reflects a lack of cultural competency and safety in the delivery of child welfare services.

A key pillar of the Ontario Indigenous Children and Youth Strategy is that First Nations, Métis, Inuit and urban Indigenous communities and community-based organizations have authority to care for their children and youth. These partners lead the way in defining the needs for their children, families and communities and ways to provide services and supports, as needed.

Supporting this outcome involves:

Supporting families

Reconciliation requires acknowledging the ongoing harm that colonization has had on family wellbeing. The residential school system removed children from nourishing, loving, child-centred families where they were healthy and balanced, placed them in institutions that prohibited their cultural traditions and languages, and left them vulnerable to violence, abuse and isolation. Intergenerational trauma has ongoing impacts to family wellbeing in these communities.

Support for survivors of intergenerational trauma may include mental wellness programs and opportunities to reconnect with lost languages, traditions and teachings. Indigenous families are the experts in knowing what is best for their children, and need support to enable them to define and achieve their own goals.

Valuing Indigenous ways of knowing

Indigenous concepts of childhood and family are deep-rooted in traditional ways of knowing and being. Values and approaches to parenting vary and may look different from those of non-Indigenous families. Understanding and respecting these differences is crucial to supporting Indigenous families. Indigenous knowledge is “connected to all of nature, to its creatures, and to human existence. Knowledge teaches people how to be responsible for their own lives, develops their sense of personal relationships to others, and helps them model competent and respectful behaviour.” 110

Wellbeing of children and families promoted by strengths-based and culturally reflective services

First Nation, Métis and Inuit communities and Indigenous community-based organizations have the capacity to deliver strengths-based and culturally reflective programs and services that serve the interests of children, youth and families. Being able to demonstrate that these programs are having an impact requires organizations to regularly monitor who is accessing the services, evaluate the needs of the children and families, establish goals, and determine the measures of success.

#23 Ontario service providers and governments and Indigenous communities respond to local needs and priorities and are accountable to communities

The Ontario Indigenous Children and Youth Strategy is based on the recognition that in order for First Nations, Métis and Inuit communities to thrive, more work is needed to build lasting relationships that uphold shared accountability, Indigenous decision making and partnership. Improved outcomes through transformed relationships means that service providers and governments support the decision-making authority of First Nations, Métis and Inuit communities in the design, development, delivery and governance of programs and services for Indigenous children and families. Indigenous decision-making authority for programs and services demonstrates a shared commitment to supporting and being accountable to First Nations, Métis, and Inuit communities. The OICYS also recognizes that First Nations, Métis, Inuit and urban Indigenous peoples benefit from services they design and deliver themselves.

The OICYS states that service providers and governments can demonstrate respect for the decision-making authority of First Nations, Métis and Inuit communities by supporting transparent, equitable partnerships. This includes acknowledging shared accountability that is driven by and responsive to local needs and priorities, and a commitment to measuring impacts in ways that are culturally reflective and safe. It means having mechanisms for organizations to be able to evaluate and demonstrate the impact programs and services are having on the outcomes of children and families they serve.

When strong community-based supports are in place to keep families healthy in the first place, far fewer First Nation children and youth will become vulnerable and come into contact with “end of the line” systems like child welfare and youth justice, or experience devastating impacts such as addictions, suicide, or serious violence.111

Supporting this outcome involves:

Enabling Indigenous communities and organizations to address needs of children and families

First Nation, Métis and Inuit communities and Indigenous community-based organizations are best positioned to understand and address the needs of their children and families. Enabling these communities and organizations to be strong and stable means ensuring they have the capacities, resources and government structures necessary to design, develop, deliver and evaluate their own programs and services. This also means honouring the importance of community decision making.

Shared, mutual accountability of Indigenous and non-Indigenous service providers and governments

To support improved outcomes requires service providers, governments, Indigenous communities and community-based organizations working in partnership to demonstrate how investments in First Nation, Métis and Inuit communities and Indigenous community-based organizations are improving the lives of children, families and communities. We are all mutually accountable to set clear expectations for the outcomes programs are to achieve, and to determine the measures that will be used to evaluate impact. Any assessment of impact must be culturally relevant and responsive, and designed in partnership with Indigenous partners.

Partnership building between non-Indigenous service providers and Indigenous communities

Supporting the wellbeing of Indigenous children requires that all programs and services that they access are designed and delivered in culturally responsive ways. This means non-Indigenous service providers engage with Indigenous communities and organizations to determine culturally responsive and appropriate ways of delivering services. It means service providers and governments work with Indigenous communities and community-based organizations to build respectful and collaborative relationships at the local level. This is a key step in achieving the kind of transformed relationships required for reconciliation, and will help us collectively improve outcomes for Indigenous children and families.





Spotlight: Helping Indigenous Children Thrive

The Akwe:go and Akwe:go High-Risk Urban Aboriginal Children’s Programs were developed by the Ontario Federation of Indigenous Friendship Centres (OFIFC) in 2005 when a need was identified for programming for at-risk and high-risk Aboriginal children between the ages of 7-12. Traditional cultural teachings and values are the guiding principles for client-based programming and individualized one-to-one supports that encourage healthy lifestyle choices. The programs are funded by the Ministry of Children and Youth Services and delivered by the OFIFC. The stories that follow are from Akwe:go program workers.

I am writing about a participant who is successfully becoming a young man. He loves to be part of the First Nations Gatherings and Powwows. I see his excitement in being part of the Akwe:go programming. He always wants to learn and to help with program set up and delivery. He expresses his grass dance with pride. He isn’t shy to show his Ojibway roots. This fine young man will be a great helper one day, in every way.

During the school year, I taught the “Walking the Path” program at one of the local schools. This included educating the children about the traumas of the residential schools. Later on, during the summer, five children were brought to Horseshoe Lake for several nights of camping. It was at this time, while talking around the campfire, that one of the children shared his experience. He had gone to his grandmother and told her what he had learned during the “Walking the Path” program, and wanted to understand what it was that she had experienced. His grandmother told him many stories, and some were painful to hear. His story not only moved the program workers, but it was apparent that the other campers were interested and they soon began sharing their own family stories in relation to residential schools. I am extremely proud of this young man for his kindness in listening to his grandmother, and for his bravery in sharing with others.

During our cultural sewing circle, clients and participants were able to make these pillows with very little outside help. They worked countless hours cutting, measuring, and hand-sewing their Oopik (owl) and Tiriganiaq (fox). This was the first major sewing project that they had completed and they were so proud of themselves. Once the pillows were completed, you could see them being carried around and used in the classrooms and the children showing them off to their teachers.

Oopik and Tiriganiaq pillows reflect the culture of the Akwe:go participants

Photo: Oopik and Tiriganiaq pillows reflect the culture of the Akwe:go participants.





Spotlight: Programs for Indigenous children, youth and families

Ontario supports Indigenous children and youth through services and programs. Together with Indigenous communities, we are also building the Ontario Indigenous Children and Youth Strategy to improve services to meet the needs of Indigenous children and youth.

Education

Skills and economic development

Health and home