Printer icon Print Page

Northern and Aboriginal Policy: NAP Insights

Indigenous-Centred Early Childhood Education in Canada: The Facts

The following is the first blog in a three-part series on Indigenous-centred early childhood education (ECE) in Canada. It provides an introduction to the state of ECE in Canada, while highlighting the unique needs and realities of Indigenous children.

The international research literature consistently highlights the potential of early childhood education (ECE) to improve the life chances of vulnerable and economically marginalized children. More generally, a number of quality and access measures for ECE have become standard developmental indicators among the world’s leading development organizations, including the OECD, United Nations, and World Bank.1 A strong focus in international development is to raise the standard and availability of ECE among developing nations.

In the Canadian context, investment to ensure quality ECE for all Indigenous children presents a natural policy intervention for overcoming generations of domestic inequity. But as of 2009, only 18 per cent of Indigenous children had access to early childhood education programs in Canada.2 For the purpose of this discussion, ECE is broadly defined as programming that promotes the education and overall well-being of children aged 0 to 6.

Early Childhood Education in Canada

Despite their intermittency at times, Canada’s national and sub-national governments have made a series of important commitments to early childhood programming over the past 15 years. In 2004, the federal government announced it would develop a national system for early learning and childcare in collaboration with the provinces. This effort acknowledged ECE’s critical importance for childhood development and for the Canadian economy at large. Five billion dollars in funding over five years was announced in the following 2005 federal budget where provinces signed bilateral agreements to develop comprehensive action plans detailing spending priorities for early learning and childcare.3 In 2007, however, this funding was terminated by the newly-elected government. Since then, many provinces have continued to prioritize early learning and childcare, and developed their own action plans without federal funding. Investments in early learning and childcare have more than doubled in Canada from $3.5 billion in 2006 to $7.5 billion in 2011. As of 2014, about $10.9 billion was spent by provinces and territories on early education and care.4

The Indigenous Context

In Canada, Indigenous children are less likely to attend ECE programs compared to non-Indigenous children.5 This lag in attendance presents an immediate opportunity for policy intervention. As perhaps the most vulnerable segment of Canada’s population, Indigenous children may stand to benefit the most from having access to high-quality early childhood care and education.

The challenges faced by many Indigenous communities in Canada are well-known. The average income for Indigenous families is about three times less than for non-Indigenous Canadians.6 According to the 2011 National Household Survey findings, 34.4 per cent of Indigenous children lived in single-parent homes compared to 17.4 per cent for non-Indigenous children. The number of children born to teenage girls is particularly high among First Nations at 100 births per 1,000 women.7 This rate is comparable to some of the least-developed countries internationally, and is seven times higher compared to other teenagers in Canada.8

Outside the family sphere, Indigenous children are over-represented in government care.9 In some provinces, the ratio has been 8 to 1 for Indigenous children compared to non-Indigenous children in government care. Research indicates that some of the root causes of this situation include poverty, inadequate housing conditions, and substance abuse by parents.10

With respect to education, Indigenous children in Canada are also more likely than their peers to repeat primary school grades, and drop out of school earlier in life. Negative educational experiences early in life then contribute to challenges later on.

Looking Towards the Future

In recent times, Canada’s indigenous population has exhibited some of the strongest growth among demographic groups in the country, growing at about four times (20.1 per cent) the pace of the total non-Indigenous population (5.2 per cent) from 2006 to 2011.11 If such growth continues, it is expected that by 2031, about 25 per cent of the population of Saskatchewan and 20 per cent of the population of Manitoba will be Indigenous.12 This rising population of Indigenous youth will form a significant portion of the labour force, and their success is crucial for the Canadian economy at large.

* These projections were produced by the Demography Division of Statistics Canada based on assumptions provided or selected by the client, and not by Statistics Canada. In no event will Statistics Canada be liable for any direct, special, indirect, consequential or other damages, however caused.

From 2006 to 2011, the Indigenous working age population increased by 21 per cent compared to 5 per cent for non-Indigenous people.13 But the unemployment rate for the Indigenous population remains consistently high at 13 per cent, compared to 6 per cent for the non-Indigenous population.14 It is expected that about 300,000 Indigenous youth will enter the Canadian labour force from 2007 to 2022 and it is in all our interests to create the conditions that foster their full participation in the Canadian economy.15

In this context, ECE has an important role to play in helping Indigenous children cope with adversity and acquire a range of social, cognitive, and emotional skills that will serve them throughout their lives. As we will discuss in the next blog in this series, research shows that high-quality Indigenous-centred ECE can help Indigenous children cope with challenging environmental conditions, while strengthening their social, emotional, and academic well-being.

The next blog in this series provides an overview of the current landscape for Indigenous-centred early childhood education programming in Canada. Continue reading ...

1    John Bennett, Benchmarks for Early Childhood Services in OECD Countries (Florence: UNICEF, 2008; accessed October 4, 2016), and, Invest Early: Early Childhood Development a Driver for Results, (accessed October 4, 2016).

2    Jessica Ball, Improving the Reach of Early Childhood Education for First Nations, Inuit and Métish Children (Toronto: Moving Childcare Forward Project, 2014), 13.

3    Julie Cool, Child Care in Canada: The Federal Role(Ottawa: Parliament of Canada, 2007; accessed October 4, 2016).

4    Emis Akbari and Kerry McCuaig, Early Childhood Education Report 2014 (Toronto: Ontario Institue for Studies in Education, University of Toronto, 2014), 4.

5    Jessica Ball, Improving the Reach of Early Childhood Education for First Nations, Inuit and Métish Children (Toronto: Moving Childcare Forward Project, 2014).

6    Ibid, 10.

7    Eric Guimond and Norbert Robitaille, “When Teenage Girls Have Children: Trends and Consequences,” Horizons: Policy Research Initiative 10, no. 1 (2008), 49.

8    Ibid.

9    Ball, J. Indigenous Young Children’s Language and Literacy Development: Research Evaluating Progress, Promising Practices, and Needs. Canadian Language and Literacy Networked Centre of Excellence, 2007, 12.

10  Ibid.

11  Jessica Ball, Improving the Reach of Early Childhood Education for First Nations, Inuit and Métish Children (Toronto: Moving Childcare Forward Project, 2014), 3.

12  Statistics Canada, Population Projections by Aboriginal Identity in Canada (Ottawa: StatsCan, 2011).

13  Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada, Fact Sheet—2011 National Household Survey Indigenous Demographics, Educational Attainment and Labour Market Outcomes. (Accessed August 26, 2016.)

14  Ibid.

15  House of Commons Standing Committee on Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development, No Higher Priority: Aboriginal Post-Secondary Education in Canada (Ottawa: Government of Canada, 2007), 5.

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.