Early years are crucial. They define and affect who people are. For Indigenous people in Canada, colonisation and underfunding of services have led to poorer health and education outcomes. Stress and trauma before conception, and in birth and early childhood, can change brain development and behaviour. Brain Canada, in partnership with the Martin Family Initiative (MFI) and an anonymous family foundation, are providing funding for the Early Years project. The MFI, headed by former Prime Minister Paul Martin, is committed to improving elementary and secondary school education outcomes for First Nations, Métis Nation, and Inuit students in Canada, by working in full partnership with the Indigenous people of Canada. The project, led by Bryan Kolb of the University of Lethbridge, aims to improve outcomes for pregnant Indigenous women and their children living on a First Nations reserve through the development of a community-based initiative that centralises Indigenous knowledge and cultural values in the context of child well-being.

Working hand-in-hand with Indigenous communities is an essential first-step to creating systemic change. The nine months before birth, and the early child’s life, are critical periods in the shaping of the structures and functions of the brain. As is high-quality culturally appropriate early childhood programming for Indigenous children and families prior to kindergarten. That is why the Early Years program is based on traditional knowledge, community innovation, effective practices, and the latest scientific evidence around early childhood development. The content, implementation, and evaluation of the Early Years is grounded in Indigenous culture and MFI is partnering with Maskwacis Health Services (MHS) and the Ermineskin Cree Nation in Alberta to implement the program.

“From pre-natal to pre-school, the Early Years program is providing families with the tools to nurture their children in ways that activate resiliency, promote attachment, foster early language development and establish overall wellness,” said the Right Honourable Paul Martin, founder of the MFI. The program has two parts. The first phase is a home visiting program offering health, early learning, and social service resources to young children and their families in a home environment. It starts prenatally and continues until children reach the age of two. Early Years Visitors begin with over 60 hours of initial training. The training focuses on theory and practice related to early human development, prenatal health, early childhood education, service navigation, and family well-being. It is supplemented by further professional development such as Mental Health First Aid certification, Trauma Informed Care certification, and workshops on language development, traditional birthing practices, self-care, gestational diabetes and prenatal nutrition.

The second phase is comprised of centre-based programming for children between two and four years old with a focus on conversational reading, learning games, and development of language. It also provides enriched caregiving. In both phases, health, education, and social service data is analysed to assess outcomes associated with participation.

“The Early Years program is working to achieve true substantive equality for all Indigenous children by ensuring parents and caregivers are their children’s first teachers and the experts in their own child’s holistic wellbeing,” said Randy Littlechild, MHS Executive Director. The project has the potential to demonstrate how to effectively support Indigenous child well-being in a holistic and outcomes-driven way. If successful, it will function as a proof of principle that will lead to an expansion of the program to wider Indigenous populations in Canada. Brain Canada has invested over $16 million in research which seeks to understand how the brain develops, and the complex interplay of genes and the environment which lead to disease. Getting an evidence base, by building an evaluation into a program, is key to expanding beyond a pilot. That is why we believe it is important to support these types of research projects.