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On MY Way

Respecting Indigenous Perspectives on Wellbeing

Indigenous people in Ontario include many First Nations, Inuit, Métis and urban Indigenous communities. There is a rich diversity within and across Indigenous cultures. This diversity extends to where Indigenous peoples live, the languages that they speak, each community’s system of governance, cultural traditions and practices (including child rearing practices and norms), and how services are accessed and delivered.3

Indigenous families

When considering Indigenous perspectives on wellbeing and child development, it is important to understand the traumatic impact of colonization on Indigenous families and communities. Colonial trauma continues to impact the wellbeing of Indigenous families and communities to this day. The roots of this trauma stem from policies and practices that specifically sought to disrupt and destroy Indigenous cultural traditions, family and community structures and child rearing practices.

The residential school system forcibly removed children from nourishing, loving families and communities; placed them in institutions that prohibited them from practicing their cultural traditions and speaking their Indigenous languages; and left them vulnerable to violence, abuse and isolation.

Colonial policies have resulted in widespread intergenerational impacts, including the disruption of traditional Indigenous parenting styles.4 The Truth and Reconciliation Commission noted that residential school survivors have asked for support to regain traditional parenting practices and values.

Many Indigenous families in Ontario today are led by vulnerable parents facing a range of challenges. Twelve per cent of Indigenous families are headed by parents under the age of 25 years, and 27 per cent are headed by single mothers.5 Indigenous families experience poverty at greater rates than non-Indigenous families, and Indigenous people have a disability rate that is twice the national average.6

Despite these issues, the rich cultural knowledge systems and child rearing practices of Indigenous peoples are being widely practiced and transmitted by Indigenous families today.7, 8 These include participating in land-based activities, sharing in traditional or "country foods" (e.g., fish and wildlife), and supporting Indigenous language learning.

Indigenous wellbeing

A common element across Indigenous cultures is an understanding that wellbeing is interdependent, and involves individual, family, extended family and community wellbeing.9 Wellbeing is an all-encompassing and wholistic concept, and includes having self-esteem, personal dignity, cultural identity, connectedness, balance and harmony across one’s physical, emotional, mental and spiritual self.10

The stages of life are celebrated as each person brings forward different gifts and has a role in contributing to the wellbeing of the whole community. The life cycle reflects the interdependency of individuals, families and communities and their responsibilities to each other.11

Belonging within a family and community is one of the most important indicators of Indigenous wellbeing.12 Culturally-based systems of care place the child at the centre of societies, with parents, grandparents, aunties and uncles and traditional knowledge keepers as teachers, nurturers, and protectors.13 Traditional social structures provide children with a sense of belonging and an identity based on "every day good living", ensuring the continuity of a traditional way of life. Young people growing up in these cultures are supported to develop a strong sense of self which is expressed through responsibility to the community.

Cultural learning and development

Children's Artwork

It is crucial for the wellbeing of Indigenous children, families and communities to preserve the culture and identity of Indigenous children. Cultural learning and development of one’s self and spirit is a core developmental need for Indigenous children and cuts across all of the developmental domains. First Nations and Inuit youth have indicated that culture provides them with balance and healthy relationships.14 A strong self-identity is dependent on young people being grounded in their Indigenous culture and is needed to counter the impact of intergenerational trauma and its lifelong effects.15 The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples acknowledges the rights of Indigenous peoples to revitalize, use, develop and transmit cultural learning.16

Cultural structures and methods of cultural learning differ across and within First Nations, Métis and Inuit cultures. These examples of cultural structures highlight the range of opportunities to promote cultural learning for Indigenous middle years children.

Elders, Senators and traditional knowledge keepers and community leaders also play a key role in mentoring Indigenous young people, passing on traditional knowledge, and supporting children and youth to build confidence and a strong sense of self.

Examples of Cultural Structures17:

  • language
  • beading
  • naming
  • circles
  • customs
  • legends
  • art
  • ceremony
  • land-based
  • clan teachings
  • social activities
  • community
  • dance
  • music
  • rituals
  • hunting
  • welcoming
  • food
  • diet
  • crafts
  • songs
  • family
  • extended family
  • cultural family
  • gathering
  • custom adoption
  • pipe ceremonies
  • drum ceremonies

Transformed relationships

First Nations, Métis and Inuit families and communities are in the best position to define their own needs and identify the supports they require to help their children and families thrive. First Nations, Métis and Inuit services are best when they are designed and delivered by and for First Nations, Métis or Inuit communities.

The right to Indigenous self-determination must be respected by anyone seeking to support an Indigenous child. Each First Nations, Métis and Inuit community has a unique cultural, social, historical and political context. Perspectives or cultural traditions should never be generalized across all First Nations, Métis and Inuit groups. Service providers should make contact and work in partnership with the relevant Indigenous organizations and communities, particularly when they are considering providing support and services to Indigenous children and families.

Working toward reconciliation and transformed relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous families, communities and partners is a shared responsibility. The middle years provide a rich opportunity to reinforce, teach and support all children— including those who are Indigenous and those who are not—to participate as knowledgeable, respectful and active partners in reconciliation.

Middle childhood is a crucial period to support identity formation, cultural learning and spirit development. For Indigenous middle years children and their families and communities, this period presents an important opportunity to reinforce a strong foundation in family and community, and a lifelong connection to self, spirit and culture, which cuts across all domains of development and equips Indigenous children to thrive.