Aboriginal children, especially those living in rural and northern Canada, are the most in need in the country when it comes to accessing the basic elements of quality of life, according to a study released in June by the Institute for Research on Public Policy.
Jessica Ball, a professor at the University of Victoria's School of Child and Youth Care, authored the report, entitled "Promoting Equity and Dignity for Aboriginal Children in Canada."
Ball also calls more broad, community-led programs to deal with the issue.
"The report is really in two parts," she explained. "One is amalgamating all the available data on Aboriginal young children. My focus was the zero- to five-year-old crowd. The second part of the study was looking at promising practices."
In the first part of the study, Ball found that a large proportion of young Aboriginal children continue to lack adequate housing, food security, clean water and access to services. One compounding factor was the impact of residential schools on generations of Aboriginal mothers and fathers, according to Ball. "These children really need a lot more support than they're getting," she said.
"The study tried to pull together information from a wide variety of different sources. Really it was the first time that we've been able to piece together a multi-dimensional portrait of how Aboriginal young people are doing and try to trace how they're doing back to their ecological or environmental circumstances."
Ball found high rates of hospitalizations and illnesses among First Nations children living on reserves and in the North.
"It just screamed out the need to really invest in more family support and improved quality of living conditions," she said.
Ball also noted the high rates of apprehension of Aboriginal children into the child protection system, particularly First Nations on reserve and Inuit children," she said.
Up to 33 per cent of those children are living in protective custody in the care of the government, she added.
"The child welfare services that are funded by the department of Indian and Northern Affairs Canada seems to have an unlimited amount of money to remove children from families and their communities and almost no funding to support families to be able to keep their children in their or home or to retrieve their children once they've been apprehended," Ball said.
The second part of the study looked at solutions, and to deal with the crisis, the federal government should increase its investment in the Aboriginal Head Start program in order to significantly expand the program and other "family-centred, holistic, preventive and community-driven" initiatives, Ball recommended.
Aboriginal Head Start is a Health Canada-funded early childhood development program for First Nations, Inuit and Métis children and their families.
"We've had just over 10 years of experience with the Aboriginal Head Start program," she said. "We have seen a sustained commitment on the part of the federal government to the program and it's growing and growing. And not only is it a very positively received program it's also building a lot of Aboriginal capacity to deliver programs for Aboriginal young children and their families in communities, because there's a lot of training that's associated with it."
It is essential that Aboriginal people are involved in designing the programs intended to bring quality of life services to children.
"Aboriginal people know that they've got a wonderfully holistic understanding of what children need in order to develop optimally," she said. "And when they're given the resources and the latitude to be able to deliver programs in a community-driven way, in a culturally informed way, they're doing a wonderful job providing a comprehensive set of integrated services for Aboriginal young children within the context of their families, cultures and communities.
"My main message is to encourage that, to celebrate that, and that we hope that us non-Aboriginal folks as well as Aboriginal people can continue to encourage expansion of these kinds of community-driven and culturally informed initiatives."
Ball also recommends looking at increased services for children in the North, especially when it comes to health care.
"It's a problem for the families of the North when a child for example is hospitalized say in Winnipeg and then they return home with recommendations that they continue to get physiotherapy or occupational therapy or speech language intervention," she said. "There's very little capacity for aboriginal families to be able to access those services for their children."