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Chapter Ten

Strengthening Families

The Importance of the Early Years

Over the past 20 years, research has emerged to support what for many was the common-sense view that the first years of a person's life are perhaps the most important in shaping a child's development. The social environment, particularly in early years, has an extremely important impact on a person's life chances. There are early factors--both biological and developmental--that have lifelong impacts. For example:

  • Weight at one year of age has been associated with risk of death from heart disease.

  • Talking and play are associated with strong development of language and cognitive skills.

Success at school is affected in many ways by the skills that students gain prior to school entry. It is in the first six years of life that they gain the skills required to learn how to read, do arithmetic, delay gratification, control emotions, and cooperate with others. Studies show that failure to acquire these skills before starting school puts a child at increased risk of becoming involved in crime, teen pregnancy, and substance abuse (Hertzman, page 12).

Neurobiologists are identifying that the pre-school period is also a critically important period for brain development. According to Hertzman:

The current best understanding of the biological and environmental influences on children's development may be summarized as follows. Spending one's early years in an unstimulating, emotionally and physically unsupportive environment will affect brain development in adverse ways, and lead to cognitive, social and behaviourial delays. The problems that children so affected will display early in school will lead them to experience much more acute and chronic stress than others, which will have both physiologic and life-course consequences. (Hertzman, page 14)

These problems have social impacts at an early age. Studies show that students in schools that have few students with delayed vocabulary development move through the school system at a faster pace than children in schools where higher proportions of students have delayed vocabulary development. It is also the case that those preschool children who do not develop the ability to control their anger are likely to grow up and become the most physically aggressive adults.

According to Richard E. Tremblay:

Children who fail to learn alternatives to physical aggression during the preschool years are at very high risk of a huge number of problems. They tend to be hyperactive, inattentive, anxious, and fail to help when others are in need; they are rejected by the majority of their classmates, they get poor grades, and their behaviour disrupts school activities. They are thus swiftly taken out of their "natural" peer group and placed in special classes, special schools and institutions with other "deviants," the ideal situation to reinforce marginal behaviour. They are among the most deviant from pre-adolescence onward, are the first to initiate substance use, the first to initiate sexual intercourse, the most at risk of dropping out of school, having a serious accident, being violent offenders, being charged under the Young Offenders' Act and being diagnosed as having a psychiatric disorder. (Tremblay, page 23)

Offender profiles developed by the Ministry of the Solicitor General in 1995 support the view that it is extremely important to focus on young people. Almost all the inmates studied in a 1995 survey of Canadian penitentiaries had been the victims of some form of child abuse or had witnessed acts of domestic violence. Eighty-two percent tested at less than a Grade 10 educational level, 50 percent had a substance problem, and 55 percent had used drugs or alcohol on the day of the offence for which they were convicted (Linden, page 31-32).

The more risk factors there are in a child's life, the less likely the child will be well prepared for school. Without that preparation, school can become an alienating and humiliating institution that children reject and leave as soon as possible.

It is also clear that the risk young people face is not distributed evenly through society. Many of the major risk factors for young people have to do with their family setting. These include poor child-rearing and supervision, antisocial parents and siblings, and low family income. Children are most at risk if they come from families where:

  • discipline is inconsistent and erratic

  • parents do not care for them

  • parents have problems with drugs and crime

  • parents are poor and unemployed

For adolescents, other risk factors are ties to antisocial or delinquent peers, and belonging to a gang. Before reviewing those measures that can be taken to reduce this risk, it is worthwhile to review a number of specific issues facing Aboriginal families.


The Family

The Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples provided a series of recommendations regarding the family in its final report. The Royal Commission noted "two things stand out in presentations by Aboriginal people at our public hearings; the overwhelming concern for the well being of children and the belief that families are at the crux of personal and community healing." (RCAP, Volume III, page 10). The Royal Commission also stated that:

To Aboriginal people, family signifies the biological unit of parents and children living together in a household. But it also has a much broader meaning. Family also encompasses an extended network of grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. (RCAP, Volume III, page 11-12)

Aboriginal people have survived the colonization process of the past century or so; however, this has been at a tremendous cost to their families in Manitoba and Canada. Although Aboriginal families have survived, many are suffering and exhibiting stress in a number of ways. A primary indicator is the number of Aboriginal children in custody of provincial and Aboriginal child welfare agencies. For example, the number of Aboriginal children in care with the Winnipeg Child and Family Services Agency is approximately 70 percent of the total number of children in its care. Further demonstration of the distress is the number of young people in Manitoba's youth detention facilities; a one-day snapshot taken by this Commission in the fall of 2000 showed that over 85 percent of the youth were Aboriginal.

Another critical statistic demonstrating the distress or disorder in Aboriginal families is the high number of Aboriginal males in custody due to family violence issues. The Aboriginal Justice Inquiry had made a number of recommendations regarding violence towards women and children. However, little sustained programming has been implemented.

Federal and provincial government policies have been implemented that, at times, have had the effect of critically destabilizing Aboriginal families. An example is the education policies of the last century developed by the federal government. The policies were designed with the view to assimilate Aboriginal people as quickly as possible into the larger Canadian society. The government viewed children as the most effective target group.

The children were separated from their families and communities for ten months of the year for at least ten years of a child's lifetime. This was sufficient time for the government and churches to institute programs to erase the teachings and values of the parents and their communities. The children were overseen and taught by non-Aboriginals who worked to reorient the children towards non-Aboriginal societal values. The federal government's objective was for the children to be assimilated into the larger society, but its program of assimilation had not accounted for the racism directed towards Aboriginal people.

The racism precluded many Aboriginal people coming through the residential schools from assimilating into the Canadian society. At the same time, these individuals found themselves alienated from Aboriginal communities when they sought to return to their home communities. Stress and distress became the norm for many within Aboriginal societies.

It is only recently that the survivors of the residential school system have spoken of their suffering in the institutions. The Royal Commission recommended the establishment of a commission to review the issue. However, this recommendation has not been implemented.

Policies related to the care of children and support for children needing care, constitute another example of the continuing, systemic, de-stabilization of Aboriginal families by the larger Canadian society. The policies were established with the objective of caring for and supporting children. However, those same policies undermined Aboriginal families. Commissions and inquiries, such as the Kimelman inquiry in Manitoba, documented the impact of those policies. Kimelman labelled the systematic apprehension of Aboriginal children by non-Aboriginal child welfare agencies as "cultural genocide." The decade of the sixties has been labelled as the "Sixties scoop," as hundreds of Aboriginal children were shipped out of the country for adoption. This constituted a fundamental loss to the Aboriginal communities in Manitoba.

Leaders, Elders, and others within the Aboriginal, First Nations, and Métis communities have begun the healing in a number of ways. An important step has been the establishment of Aboriginal child and family services. The recent initiative to increase the jurisdiction of these agencies is also a step towards the healing of Aboriginal communities. This is only part of the continuum, and more must be done to support and to strengthen Aboriginal families in Manitoba.

Aboriginal families are indeed a critical resource for all Aboriginal communities. The Aboriginal population is a young population. Over 50 percent of all Aboriginal people are between the ages of 15 and 25. With such a young population, the risk factors will continue to be high for Aboriginal communities, especially in the urban areas.


Can Anything be Done?

A proactive crime prevention strategy at the family level has the twin goals of preventing child abuse and neglect, and enhancing children's intellectual and social development.

The research the Aboriginal Justice Implementation Commission has reviewed suggests that policies that support parents and provide preschool education hold out the most promise. It should be noted that these programs are often most effective when they are interlinked. Furthermore, programs must be comprehensive--often the best assistance one can offer a parent is an improvement in housing, clothing, and nutrition.


Raising Children

Research provides increasing support for the view that the strength of family ties, parental supervision, and discipline issues all have an impact on whether a child is likely to engage in delinquent activity as a young person and criminal activity as an adult. It should be noted that this research does not simply affix blame on parents or imply all that needs doing is for them to provide their children with better care. Children are raised in a social context. Single mothers living in poverty, coming from a background of family violence, lacking in labour market skills, and living in a dysfunctional community, cannot be expected to raise healthy, self-reliant, and law-abiding children without assistance. These families need assistance in learning how to raise their children, and they need economic and social support.

The parents of children at risk often have difficulty in shaping their children's behaviour by positive family interactions, rewards for good behaviour, and the use of non-physical sanctions. These skills can be developed. Studies show that when parents are provided with such education, there is an observable, positive impact on their children. Research indicates that intensive home-based services that involve the family as well as the other groups, such as the school, the peer group, and neighbourhood, can reduce rates of criminality, institutionalization, and drug abuse.

A survey report by Dr. Rick Linden prepared for this Commission indicated that a variety of parental mentoring programs, home-visit programs, and early childhood education programs have positive effects on antisocial behaviour, academic achievement, and parental involvement in the children's education. While there is a need for further research in this area, it would appear that these low-cost programs have the potential to provide significant long-term benefit.


Preschool Programs

Preschool programs have the potential to reduce crime and delinquency. The Perry Pre-School Program in Ypsilanti, Michigan, is perhaps the most well known and cited of these preschool programs. This was a highly structured, preschool program for children from economically and socially disadvantaged backgrounds that was coupled with a home-visit program. It lasted 30 weeks a year for two years, and included the study of a control group of children who did not receive any programming. The study has been following the lives of these children for over two decades. It was found that the children who had been involved in the early childhood program had significantly higher rates of high school graduation, home ownership, earnings, independence from social services, and--most importantly for the purposes of the AJIC--had lower arrest rates. It has been estimated the saving was over $7 for every dollar invested in the program. According to Linden, a review of 13 other educational prevention programs showed that the most successful programs were of long duration, and focussed on children, parents and teachers.

The Andrews Street Family Centre

The Andrews Street Family Centre (ASFC) is a Winnipeg community-based initiative founded on the belief that children are reliant on their parents and that all parents, regardless of their life situations, require help and support at times.

Community members played a central role in creating the program and continue to play a role in providing it with direction. The program operates:

  • a family resource centre

  • a drop-in centre for children and youth 7 to 17 years of age. It emphasizes cultural and recreational activities, and encourages parents to be involved along with their children.

  • a program for young mothers

  • a community patrol

Aboriginal Head Start

The Aboriginal Head Start program was developed in 1995, following extensive consultation with the Aboriginal community. Designed for preschool children, the program also provides outreach support for their parents. It provides access to other community health and social services, and provides coordination of these services. This method emphasizes an active learning process and problem-solving skills, and encourages staff to form relationships and to share control with the children, and to act as facilitators, rather than instructors.

Current Government Initiatives

The Manitoba government has established a cross-department program that focusses on children in their early years. Healthy Child Manitoba is an initiative that works across departments to build a community-development approach for the well-being of Manitoba's children, families, and communities, with a priority focus on conception, through infancy and the preschool years.

It is led by the Healthy Child Committee of Cabinet, chaired by the Minister of Family Services and Housing, and comprising the Ministers of Aboriginal and Northern Affairs; Culture, Heritage and Tourism; Education, Training and Youth; Health; Justice; and the Minister Responsible for the Status of Women.

The five core commitments of Healthy Child Manitoba are parent-child centres, prenatal and early childhood nutrition programs, nurses in schools, fetal alcohol syndrome/fetal alcohol effect prevention, and adolescent pregnancy prevention.


Organized childcare dramatically improves cognitive development. Important elements in an effective childcare program are low caregiver-to-child ratios, well-trained staff, and a safe and stimulating environment.

Manitoba has almost 23,000 licensed childcare spaces in nursery schools, infant, preschool and school-age centres, and family care homes.

The Manitoba government is currently in the process of reviewing its childcare policies. Its policy document, "A Vision for Child Care and Development in Manitoba," focusses on standards and quality care, funding, training and professionalism, governance, integrated service delivery, and public education.

Over the past decade, there has been a decline in childcare measured in terms of the availability of spaces, the affordability of care, and the quality of service. In a study of childcare in Manitoba in the 1990s, Dr. Susan Prentice wrote:

Between 1989 and 1999, Manitoba's regulated childcare system remained inadequate or declined. Today, there is a licensed child care space for only one in ten Manitoba children, but this ratio worsens for some age groups and communities who are even more severely under-served. Most care is provided to preschoolers aged 2-5 years; all other age groups have less access. Services in rural and northern areas are much less available than in Winnipeg. Aboriginal, francophone and special needs children also have worse access than other Manitobans. Growth in the number of facilities has been extremely limited; in 1999 there were just 37 more childcare centres than there were in 1989, and the number of family homes has actually declined since 1992-93.

Childcare fees are high and rising, although most parents cannot afford regulated care. The cost of infant group care has risen 79% since 1988, and fees for other age groups increased at least 21%. It is harder for a low-income parent to qualify for a fee subsidy today than in 1989. Parent eligibility for a "full" subsidy is cut off well below the poverty line. Since 1993, even the poorest parent is usually surcharged up to $2.40 per day per child, or between 8 and 24 per cent of the daily fee. Childcare has grown more income stratified over the decade, and today is a more targeted service than in 1989. Despite these problems with access and affordability, the province increased fees in 2000-2001, and did not extend eligibility for subsidy, eliminate the punitive $2.40 per day per child charged to subsidized parents, or introduce a sliding fee. (Prentice, no page)

According to Prentice's study of childcare in Manitoba:

Currently, Manitoba First Nation communities, under the Inuit/First Nations Initiative, are planning childcare services, undertaking needs assessments and beginning early childhood educator training courses. By the end of the Initiative, it is expected that 1,042 reserve-based child day care spaces will be established in Manitoba, governed by First Nations established policy, framework, and regulations. By 1998, about 60 on-reserve centres (unlicensed) had been started in Manitoba. In urban areas, Aboriginal families (like other Manitobans) may use the regulated childcare system, if they can find and afford care.

Manitoba does not license or fund child care programs on-reserve, although the Child Day Care Branch will assist on-reserve facilities to meet licensing requirements. Approximately 60 new child care centres have been established since 1995 under the federal government's First Nations/Inuit Child Care Initiative. (Prentice, page 14)

Childcare services strengthen families in a number of ways. They can provide a healthy environment in which basic skills are developed, and children are prepared for school and encouraged in appropriate behaviours. At the same time, they provide a respite for parents, an opportunity to participate in the labour force, and a meaningful form of employment. However, to achieve these goals, the Manitoba government must improve accessibility, availability, and the quality of childcare service in Manitoba.

It is still difficult for many to access the daycare required by parents in today's society. This is particularly evident for Aboriginal families. A growing phenomenon of single-parent families headed by Aboriginal women in Winnipeg is evident from recent statistics. Over 60 percent of all single-parent families in Winnipeg are headed by women. An added factor is that single-parent families appear to be at higher risk for negative life outcomes. Various support programs aimed at supporting families and assisting the educational needs of children should be developed.

For these reasons, the AJIC encourages the government to take steps to ensure the provision of affordable childcare.


Aboriginal Child Welfare

The Aboriginal Justice Inquiry devoted a chapter to the issue of Aboriginal child welfare. It recommended that:

  • The provincial government establish the Office of Child Protector, responsible to the Legislature, as recommended in the Kimelman Report. This office's responsibilities would be, among other things:

    1. To ensure that children involved with the child welfare system have their interests and rights protected.

    2. To receive and investigate complaints about the manner of treatment of children by child welfare agencies.

  • Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal child and family service agencies be provided with sufficient resources to enable them to provide the communities they serve with the full range of direct service and preventive programs mandated by the Child and Family Services Act.

  • The federal and provincial governments provide resources to Aboriginal child and family service agencies for the purpose of developing policies, standards, protocols and procedures in various areas, but particularly for the purpose of developing computer systems that will permit them to communicate quickly and effectively with other agencies, to track cases and to share information.

  • Principle 11 of the Child and Family Services Act be amended to read:

    "Aboriginal people are entitled to the provision of child and family services in a manner which respects their unique status, and their cultural and linguistic heritage".

  • The Province of Manitoba in conjunction with the Manitoba Metis Federation develop a mandated Métis child and family service agency with jurisdiction over Métis and non-status children throughout Manitoba.

  • The jurisdiction of the reserve-based Indian child and family service agencies be extended to include off-reserve band members.

  • Indian agencies be provided with sufficient resources to ensure that this expanded mandate be effectively carried out.

  • A mandated Aboriginal child and family service agency be established in the City of Winnipeg.

The Aboriginal Justice Implementation Commission is aware that the Office of the Children's Advocate has been established, and that a number of additional, mandated First Nations child welfare agencies have also been established since 1991. However, neither a Métis agency nor a Winnipeg agency has been established.

Its first quarterly report, the AJIC recommended that:


The Government of Manitoba seek to enter into agreement with

the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs and the Manitoba Metis Federation to develop a plan that would result in First Nations and Métis communities developing and delivering Aboriginal child welfare services.

The Commission made the recommendation because it understood that both the government and Aboriginal representatives were willing to take such action, because of the importance of children and families. The Framework Agreement between the federal government and the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs highlighted child welfare, as did the tripartite agreement between the Manitoba government, the federal government, and the Manitoba Metis Federation. Since the Report of the Aboriginal Justice Inquiry, the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples had also recognized the importance of the area by making a range of recommendations in its final report.

Subsequently, the Manitoba government entered into agreements with the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs and the Manitoba Metis Federation to develop a plan that would result in the development and delivery of Aboriginal child welfare services by First Nations and Métis communities. (Information on this initiative is available at


Table of Contents
Executive Summary
Section 1 - The Aboriginal Justice Inquiry: background and key issues
Section 2 - Aboriginal Rights and Aboriginal Relations
Section 3 - Community and Restorative Justice
Section 4 - Crime Prevention through Community Development
Section 5 - Concluding Thoughts

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