Early childhood is a critical stage of development. The things we learn and experience at this time set the stage for our later success and fundamentally shape us as people. It is clear that past and present colonial realities have given way to disruptions in parenting and traditional child-rearing practices. It is also clear that these persistent disruptions impact Indigenous children’s development during the earliest years of life and beyond. Given the multiple, unique contexts in which Indigenous children are growing, the development and sustainable provision of unique, culturally grounded supports are required in order for Indigenous parents and communities to nurture their children’s healthy development. A growing body of research on early childhood development has shown that by equipping families with strong knowledge of their children’s early developmental processes, they can reliably provide the stable, predictive environments that help their children thrive.

It was with this idea in mind that the Martin Family Initiative (MFI) approached the Ermineskin Cree Nation to discuss co-developing a prenatal to early childhood intervention program. Together, MFI with Ermineskin, Maskwacis Health Services (MHS) and Maskwacis Education Schools Commission (MESC) created the Early Years pilot program. In 2018, it received funding from the Brain Canada Foundation and an anonymous donor.

The Early Years differs from the other projects supported by the Brain Canada Foundation so far, representing a shift in the way research is conducted. Relationship building and ongoing co-development with the community ensure that evaluation is embedded throughout in a respectful way. The Early Years is centred around visitors from the community, many of them mothers themselves, who support pregnant women and young families in their homes, and walk alongside them as they navigate the new challenges of parenthood. According to Chloe Ferguson, Director of the Early Years, “Brain Canada really took a chance on this project and have approached it in a way that demonstrates a real understanding of the fact that research doesn’t happen in a vacuum. There is a way to approach research from a community driven and relational perspective.”

MFI and its partners have worked with leading researchers in the field to develop a comprehensive 45-hour training course for Visitors, described by Ms. Ferguson as a “crash course in childhood development.” They also developed a collection of original resources, that weave together Indigenous-led community innovation and trailblazing scientific research in early childhood development. A set of 170 ‘Toolbox cards’ provide conversation topics, activities and relevant information to guide each visit and draw parents into their young children’s early learning experiences while strengthening ties to their families and cultures.

The program is now in its fourth year and there has been great uptake. Dr. Melissa Tremblay, an Indigenous scholar and child psychologist who, along with Dr. Bryan Kolb, has been leading the scientific direction of the project, says that the reputation of the program and the level of trust participants have in their visitors has already come across in the evaluation interviews she has conducted. “Having worked on lots of other community initiatives … I would say that the momentum of this project, the relationships that have been built and the way that the program has become so imbedded within the community has been incredible.”

According to Heather Downie, Program Manager, a big part of the program’s success is due simply to listening to community Elders. “The key lessons are already part of the traditional knowledge. We are now in a place where we can build on what the Elders are saying and then we can back those messages up with the latest science.”

Thanks to the success of the Early Years in Ermineskin Cree Nation, the project was expanded to serve the three other communities that make up Maskwacis. As Dr. Tremblay says, “the communities we’re working with already have the resources and the strengths that they need in order to address issues that they might be facing. Our role is to walk alongside community partners to provide a different perspective on how to access those strengths.”

Although it is too soon to determine the long-term outcomes that can be attributed to this intervention, the Early Years program provides a great example of how successful collaborations and integrating research with Indigenous culture can uplift the existing strengths of Indigenous families and communities.