Aboriginal Fathers in Canada
Jessica Ball, M.P.H., PhD, Sarah Moselle, MA
University of Victoria, Canada
First Nations, Métis and Inuit fathers in Canada are generally referred to as ‘Indigenous fathers.’ With the exception of studies cited in this article, there is no published scholarship on First Nations and Métis fathers’ involvement in parenting. This absence mirrors the reality reflected in demographic and social survey findings that Indigenous men are the most socially excluded population in Canada. Their experiences of growing up and becoming fathers chart a unique trajectory embedded in historically conditioned social and economic circumstances that are the outcomes of ongoing colonial government policies that have disempowered Indigenous family and community systems in Canada.
Prior to French and British colonization, Indigenous Peoples lived in tribal communities with cohesive systems of governance, language, culture, clan systems and family structures.1 These cultural groups had a robust sense of extended family: Elders’ roles were integral to preparing boys to become men, fathers, and Elders themselves.2 Colonial government policies had a devastating impact on Indigenous men’s roles in family and community life. Most notably, the 1876 Indian Act gave the government license to remove First Nations children from their families and place them in ‘Indian Residential Schools.’ The explicit government mandate of these church-run schools was to strip Indigenous children of their cultural identity and connections to their land, family and community.3,4 Many young mothers and fathers today were raised by parents who were first or second generation survivors of residential schools and consequently lacked parenting role models.5 Vigorous efforts are being made in many First Nations and Métis communities to revitalize traditional, extended family systems and the culturally-based roles of fathers.6,7
Indigenous communities and organizations are making tremendous efforts to recover cultural knowledge that was all but lost since the century of Residential Schools, which ended in 1996. To support healing from historic trauma,8 some investments have been made by the Canadian government.9 Funding for Indigenous health, education and social development focuses primarily on women and children. While some First Nations and Métis fathers are thriving members of vibrant families and communities, many continue to live on the margins of society, exacerbated by a lack of visible representation, advocacy, social research and programmatic support.
For the general population in Canada, there is little public investment in father involvement.10 Existing programs are based on Euro-Western social service models and assumptions about the nuclear family, living in urban settings with access to resources typical of middle class households. These programs may be unsuitable for many Indigenous fathers, especially those living in poverty, with marginal literacy, no drivers’ license, and sub-standard or no housing. As well, most Indigenous families seek support in helping their children to learn their Indigenous language as well as English or French, to understand nature and learn skills for living on the land, and to experience a spiritual connection to life.11 Whereas fathers of European heritage tend to describe the birth of their child as an immediately life-altering experience, Indigenous dads may not develop a relationship with their child until she or he is in adolescence or older.12 A number of historical and demographic conditions contribute to this trajectory: Indigenous men often become fathers during adolescence; a disproportionate number of incarcerated men in Canada are Indigenous;13 substance abuse, patterns of seasonal work that requires periods of father absence; and a high rate of parent separation and divorce can interrupt fathers’ connectivity with their children.14
The little research that has been done on Indigenous fathers’ involvement suggests that much could be learned that would contribute new concepts and challenge orthodox theories in the otherwise large literature on father involvement and family life. As well, evaluation studies of approaches to support Indigenous fathers could disrupt Euro-western assumptions about needs and goals for father involvement and improve practices in education, child care, health services, and corrections services. Efforts by social scientists to engage Indigenous men in research are particularly sensitive because of the troubled history of misrepresentation and abuse of Indigenous people by ‘settler’ agencies and anthropologists. Research efforts must be guided by Indigenous research ethics: extensive work has been done in Canada on ethical principles for research involving Indigenous individuals and communities.15 While survey research and empirical methods are viable tools, community partnered research that uses participatory methods are most likely to be positively received by Indigenous community leaders and funding agencies.16 Research must be responsive to goals and needs identified by Indigenous people. Also importantly, research should focus separately on the experiences of First Nations, Métis, Inuit and urban Aboriginal fathers.
Recent Research Results
Recognizing the absence of knowledge about fathers in Canada as a whole, from 2004-2009, the Father Involvement Research Alliance (http://www.fira.ca/) undertook a national study of father involvement. The study included a component led by the first author, focused on Indigenous fathers’ experiences, needs, and goals. Using a community-university partnership approach and participatory research methods, five First Nations and Aboriginal service organizations helped design the research ethics and consent protocols, methodology, survey tool and interview protocol. An Indigenous research team recruited and interviewed 80 Indigenous fathers in the partner communities. Interviews asked men to describe their living conditions, transition to fatherhood, roles, needs and goals with their children (both biological and social) and other family members, and understandings of factors influencing their experiences as fathers. The team transcribed and interpreted the data, and participated in meetings with the partner communities to conceptualize the findings and plan knowledge mobilization tools. Virtually every father’s accounts of his struggles with developing and sustaining positive father involvement highlighted the destructive roles of Indian Residential Schools, child welfare involvement, adoption and loss of connection to their heritage culture, language, spirituality, and Elders. Nearly all fathers described father involvement as a set of skills that must be learned because they had not experienced positive relationships with men themselves as children. The study also pointed to institutional barriers that interrupt Aboriginal fathers’ involvement with their children, including: lack of paternity designation on children’s birth records and child welfare files; poverty; marginal or seasonal employment; incarceration; residential treatment programs that do not include family members; jurisdictional obstacles to accessing support services; disruptive child welfare interventions; and mother-centric outreach and services.12 Most Indigenous fathers described their goal of learning and practicing culturally-based ways of caregiving, including for example the use of traditional foods, activities ‘on the land’, oral story-telling, songs and dance, and spiritual practices led by Elders and to re-create traditional, extended and blended family circles of care for children.17
In 2013, the Public Health Agency of Canada supported the authors to conduct a national survey of the spectrum of programs in Canada that promote Indigenous fathers’ positive involvement.6 The authors contacted 130 individuals or organizations believed to be operating programs for First Nations, Inuit, and Métis fathers and father-figures of young children (prenatal to 6 years old); 35 sustained programmatic efforts and promising practices were identified. A majority of these programs were grassroots initiatives run out of Aboriginal Head Start Programs, Friendship Centres and Tribal Councils, while a few were operated by federally funded programs for the general Canadian population. The study found that in the absence of a formal public funding stream for promoting positive father involvement, efforts to reach out to Indigenous fathers are often ‘hidden’ in other publicly funded programs, such as maternal and child health, early childhood care and development programs, community action for children, and prenatal and nutrition programs. Precarious funding was reported as the major obstacle to sustaining these programs. Other challenges were the absence of male-oriented, culturally based program guidelines or modules and a lack of qualified male program facilitators. The study also uncovered a diverse array of successful programs, each tailored to the available funding, specific culture, context and community-identified needs and goals.
Key Research Questions
- Effectiveness research on Indigenous father support programs is needed to identify promising practices in diverse father populations and circumstances, sustainable models, and strategies for overcoming common obstacles faced by Indigenous fathers and by communities seeking to support them. There is clear demand from Indigenous communities for program funding and models that can be adapted to incorporate local cultures and respond to fathers’ needs and goals.
- Research should explore how First Nations, Métis and Inuit fathers define, measure, and understand determinants of ‘success’ in their journeys to become positively involved fathers. Ethical and culturally valid research should use Indigenous (‘emic’ - meaning from the perspective of the subject) goals and ways of measuring goal attainment, rather than imposing a dominant cultural lens.
- Case study research could usefully explore new forms of family formation and mutual support involving Indigenous fathers that incorporate culturally-based values, concepts, forms of interaction and living together.18
The few studies to date on Indigenous fathers’ journeys and community outreach services to Indigenous fathers are first steps in what could become a growing Indigenous father involvement movement. However, the field of fatherhood studies needs to open up mainstream conceptual frameworks and methodologies to comprehend the historical inputs, cultural foundations, and contemporary goals of Indigenous fatherhood. Father involvement research and social service programs are strongly driven by preconceived, Euro-western notions of what counts as ‘involvement’ – but whether these standards are always the most meaningful for diverse populations of First Nations, Métis and Inuit children, mothers or fathers is an empirical question. It is timely to open up the field of fatherhood studies to a greater range of fathers’ expressions of caring, responsibility, and family participation.
Implications for Parents, Services and Policy
The research cited in this article confirms a pressing need for outreach to Indigenous fathers, including: sustained public funding to train Indigenous father support workers, operational funds for Indigenous-led program initiatives, and the creation and dissemination of culturally-based resources and adaptable program modules. Support efforts must be tailored to local community and family contexts, needs and goals. While this broad policy shift should be held as an overarching goal, immediate enhancements should be made to reach Indigenous fathers in the most likely points of contact. For example, prenatal and parenting education programs, maternal and child health programs, childcare and early childhood programs could shift from the predominant mother-centric bias to provide father-friendly environments, practices, and hours of operation, and more Indigenous staff. There is a distinct need for a cultural frame around services19 and creative ways to harness Indigenous fathers’ knowledge and skills in ways that reinforce their involvement and build on strengths.
- Anderson K, Ball J. Foundations: First Nations and Métis families. In: Long D, Dickason OP, eds. Visions of the heart: Canadian Aboriginal issues. 4th edition. Don Mills, ON: Oxford University Press; 2015.
- McKegney S, ed. Masculindians: Conversations about Indigenous manhood. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press; 2014.
- Fournier S, Crey E. Stolen from our embrace: The abduction of First Nations children and the restoration of Aboriginal communities. Vancouver: Douglas and McIntyre; 1997.
- Miller JR. Shingwauk’s vision: A history of native residential schools. Toronto: University of Toronto Press; 1996.
- Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada: Interim Report. Winnipeg, Manitoba; 2012.
- Moselle S, Ball J. Aboriginal father involvement programs in Canada. Ottawa: Public Health Agency of Canada, Health Child Development Section, and Early Childhood Development Intercultural Partnerships; 2013.
- Mussell WJ. Warrior-caregivers: Understanding the challenges and healing of First Nations men. Ottawa: Aboriginal Healing Foundation; 2005.
- Wesley-Esquimaux CC, Smolewski M. Historic trauma and Aboriginal healing. Ottawa: Aboriginal Healing Foundation Research Series; 2003.
- Spea, WK. Full circle: The Aboriginal healing foundation and the unfinished work of hope, healing and reconciliation. Ottawa: Aboriginal Healing Foundation; 2014.
- Ball J, Daly K, eds. Father involvement in Canada: Diversity, renewal, and transformation. Vancouver: UBC Press; 2012.
- Ball J. Identity and knowledge in Indigenous young children’s experiences in Canada. Childhood Education 2012;88(5):286-291.
- Ball J, George R. Policies and practices affecting Aboriginal fathers’ involvement with their children. In: 2nd Annual Aboriginal Policy Research Conference. Relationships: Policy, Research and Results. Winnipeg, Spring; March 2006.
- Dauvergne M. Adult Correctional Statistics in Canada, 2010/2011. Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics. Component of Statistics Canada catalogue no. 85-002-X. Juristat ISSN 1209-6393. Statistic Canada; 2011.
- Ball J, Moselle S. Indigenous fathers’ journeys in Canada: Turning around disrupted circles of care. In: Roopnarine J, ed. Fathers across cultures. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger. In press.
- (TCPS2) Canadian Institutes of Health Research, Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, and Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada Tri-Council policy statement: Ethical conduct for research involving humans. Chapter 9: Research involving the First Nations, Inuit and Métis Peoples of Canada. Ottawa: Interagency Secretariat on Research Ethics; 2010.
- Ball J, Janyst P. Enacting research ethics in partnerships with indigenous communities in Canada: “Do it in a good way”. Journal of Empirical Research on Human Research Ethics: An International Journal 2008;3(2):33-51.
- Ball J. Indigenous fathers’ involvement in reconstituting “circles of care”. American Journal of Community Psychology 2010;45(1-2):124-138.
- Brant Castellano M. Aboriginal family trends: Extended families, nuclear families, families of the heart. Ottawa, ON: The Vanier Institute of the Family; 2002.
- Health Council of Canada. Empathy, dignity and respect: Creating cultural safety for Aboriginal people in urban health care. Toronto: Health Council of Canada; 2012.
How to cite this article:
Ball J, Moselle S. Aboriginal Fathers in Canada. In: Tremblay RE, Boivin M, Peters RDeV, eds. Roopnarine JL, topic ed. Encyclopedia on Early Childhood Development [online]. http://www.child-encyclopedia.com/father-paternity/according-experts/aboriginal-fathers-canada. Published October 2015. Accessed June 17, 2019.