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Northern and Aboriginal Policy: NAP Insights

Indigenous-Centred Early Childhood Education in Canada: Success Factors

The following is the third blog in a three-part series on Indigenous-centred early childhood education (ECE) in Canada. It discusses the characteristics of effective ECE programs in the Indigenous context.

According to current evaluative research, successful Indigenous ECE programs share the following traits: They are largely based on Indigenous pedagogy; they promote Indigenous languages and culture; they are staffed sufficiently with Indigenous educators; they empower parents and communities; and they provide a full-day timetable of activities for children.1

It is essential to incorporate the unique learning values of Indigenous people in creating successful Indigenous-centred early education programs and policies. Unlike many programs based on western pedagogy, the concept of “holism” is a vital aspect of Indigenous-centred education. Holism treats learning as a process that is spiritual as well as experiential, that has its foundations in language and culture, that spreads across all stages of life, and that integrates western as well as Indigenous knowledge. Of course, no existing framework for measuring learning success encompasses this wide spectrum of holistic elements. The current models of education fall short in taking informal ways of learning into account, and are mainly focused on formal western-centric education systems.2 Hence, it is pertinent to expand the current models to be more inclusive.

The Indigenous Voice on Early Childhood Education

Indigenous communities and organizations have long recognized the importance of early childhood education in creating healthy communities with long-term positive outcomes. National Indigenous organizations such as the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK) and Assembly of First Nations (AFN), as well as territorial governments, have provided recommendations to create early childhood development programming that starts from the Indigenous context. The recurring themes among their recommendations include the creation of a model that is child-centred, family-focused, and community –driven, i.e., includes parents, extended families, and elders. The creation of Indigenous pedagogy has also been emphasized, as well as providing appropriate training opportunities and incentives for educators. A common concern is the need to improve access for low-income families and make quality early education available to all children, especially those in the remotest communities. A great deal of emphasis is also placed on the promotion of Indigenous languages and culture. The need for support in the form of funding and increased collaboration across federal, provincial, territorial, and other stakeholders involved in the early learning space has been recognized to be fundamental to success.

Importance of Language and Culture

Early childhood provides an enormous opportunity to build the roots for native language learning. This is particularly important in the Indigenous context, as the loss of culture and language is greatly felt by Indigenous communities due to a long history of colonization and marginalization. Out of the 60 remaining Indigenous languages in Canada, only three are considered healthy.3 Preservation and continuation of languages and culture is a top priority for Indigenous people, and early childhood is the best time to focus on achieving this goal. Numerous studies have shown that from birth to five years is the most crucial time in a person’s life to promote language development. It is also important to understand that language and culture are deeply intertwined, i.e., language skills are fundamental in accessing cultural knowledge. In terms of language development, it has been found that language acquisition is the most effective when the language has a strong presence at home and at least one parent has an Indigenous language as their mother tongue; however, most Indigenous children in Canada do not live in such an environment.4

The transfer of Indigenous children to mainstream schools also presents challenges for language retention. It has been found that although literacy skills learned in the mother tongue are easily transferrable to another language, bilingualism could be detrimental to the first language if it’s a minority language.5 This is an important point of concern because many Indigenous children are increasingly likely to learn their native languages as a second language rather than as their first language. Many First Nations Elders have expressed concerns that native language loss will ultimately lead to the loss of cultural identity, connectedness, knowledge, and deeper meanings associated with symbols and words.6 Hence, it is important to sow the seeds of language learning at the early age, but also to ensure opportunities for continuation of language practice after early childhood.

The Way Forward

The goal of Indigenous-centred early childhood education programs is manifold: to provide opportunities for holistic learning for social, emotional, personal, and educational development; to allow Indigenous children to actively engage in their language and cultural identities; to engage the communities; and to equip children with the appropriate tools to transition smoothly to mainstream schools.

The creation of culturally-appropriate early childhood education programs is one of the calls to action in the Truth and Reconciliation report. In the federal government’s quest to undo centuries of marginalization, building a systematic and comprehensive Indigenous-centred ECE strategy is an integral step. In order to be effective, it must be based on Indigenous values; follow a model of community ownership that meaningfully engages Indigenous stakeholders in the design, planning, and implementation; and provide adequate support in form of funding, training, and expertise.

1    Siomonn Pulla, Building on our Strengths: Indigenous Youth Wellness in Canada’s North (Ottawa: The Conference Board of Canada, 2013), 37.

2    Canadian Council on Learning, Redefining How Success is Measured in First Nations, Inuit and Métis Learning, Report on Learning in Canada 2007 (Ottawa: CCL, 2007).

3, Once-Vibrant Aboriginal Languages Struggle for Survival, October 24, 2012. (Accessed October 4, 2016.)

4    Jessica Ball, Indigenous Young Children’s Language and Literacy Development: Research Evaluating Progress, Promising Practices, and Needs (London: Canadian Language and Literacy Networked Centre of Excellence, 2007).

5    Ibid, 40.

6    Ibid, 7.

Photo of Kiran Alwani


Kiran is a Master's student in Public Policy and Global Affairs at The University of British Columbia. Kiran completed her BSc (Hons) in anthropology and sociology from the Lahore University of Management Sciences. Before moving to Canada, she worked with underprivileged children and their communities as a fellow at Teach for Pakistan. Her experience with Pakistan’s public education system, and the country’s educational crisis, ignited her desire to pursue a career in public policy to drive positive global change.

Before starting her master's, Kiran worked in communications, public engagement, and development at the Institute for Canadian Citizenship in Toronto, where she worked on major projects including Adrienne Clarkson’s 2014 CBC Massey Lectures and the ICC’s annual LaFontaine-Baldwin Symposium.