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Northern and Aboriginal Policy: NAP Insights

Indigenous-Centred Early Childhood Education in Canada: The Current Landscape

The following is the second blog in a three-part series on Indigenous-centred early childhood education (ECE) in Canada. It discusses current federal programming, its reach and impact, and associated challenges.

The two most prominent Indigenous-centred ECE programs in Canada are supported at the federal level. They are the Public Health Agency of Canada’s Aboriginal Head Start in Urban and Northern Communities (AHSUNC), and Health Canada’s Aboriginal Head Start on Reserve (AHSOR).1 Both programs are based on a model of community ownership, collective participation, and family involvement, and were designed to integrate local Indigenous cultures and languages into their programming. Both programs also generally emphasize six dimensions in their programming: education, health promotion, culture and language, nutrition, social support, and parental/family involvement.2 AHSUNC began in 1995 with AHSOR following in 1998. Since their inception, these programs have gained the approval of many Indigenous communities for their positive affirmation of Indigenous cultural values and support of Indigenous languages, alongside their promotion of essential skills, nutrition, and wellness.

Reach and Impact

According to past estimates, about 10 per cent of Indigenous children aged 3 to 5 in Canada will attend one of the two Head Start programs.3 For 2011–12, PHAC reported that AHSUNC reached about 4,640 First Nations, Inuit, and Métis children living off-reserve. For the off-reserve Indigenous population, this total represents 5 per cent of Indigenous children aged 0 to 6, and 8 per cent of Indigenous children aged 3 to 5.4 In 2010 Health Canada reported that AHSOR reached over 9,000 First Nations children on reserve.5 Yet according to the National Household Survey there were 136,100 Aboriginal children aged 0 to 4 in Canada in 2011.6 Clearly these national-level programs have room to grow.

Although limited, available empirical data indicate that these Head Start programs can empower Indigenous families and communities. In a recent Health Canada-sponsored survey of parents, it was reported that 90 per cent saw positive changes in their children as a result of participating in AHSOR. The study also found that across all regions AHSOR covered, parents unanimously valued the cultural and language components of the Head Start program.7 In the majority view, the AHSOR played an important role in strengthening the transmission and preservation of Indigenous languages.

Other related evaluative research indicates that when Indigenous communities self-manage and create their own curricula, their efforts can result in positive impacts on children’s educational achievement and desire for learning.8 Furthermore, the research suggests that participation in shaping and delivering Head Start programs provides community members with a sense of collective pride and responsibility for their future generations.9

There are several issues that need to be tackled in order to build effective and far-reaching ECE programs for Indigenous children. These include funding challenges, governance matters, and strategic data gaps.

Program Funding Challenges and Governance Matters

Program evaluation data for AHSUNC shed light on some of the Head Start programs’ funding challenges. In particular, the programs have difficulties supporting a competitive wage for program staff. In 2010–2011, the cost per child for the AHSUNC program was lower ($7,567) compared to other provincial early childhood programming (Alberta, $9,832; Nova Scotia, $12,827; and Ontario, $10,011)10 The 2012 evaluation of the program also found that the AHSUNC sites were unable to pay market-competitive wages to early childhood educators.11 This makes attracting qualified candidates to early childhood educator jobs a challenge. The low earning potential associated with the field of early childhood education may also be a reason why fewer northern and Indigenous workers choose not to attain professional ECE certifications or diplomas.12

A further need involves governance matters and the fostering of better coordination between the various groups involved in ECE policy in Canada. There is a lack of coordination between federal administrators of the AHSUNC program and provinces and territories, as well as with national indigenous organizations.13 There are also no formal links between AHSUNC and AHSOR, even though the programs are based on the same model, principles, and objectives. Collaborations around implementation research and the dissemination of smart practices could prove to be useful despite their different target groups.

Understanding Indigenous Needs: The Strategic Data Gaps

One of the main challenges beyond funding in creating effective Indigenous-centred programming is the lack of appropriate data to build evidence-based policies. Thus far, most national-level studies of ECE impacts among the Canadian population omit information that is culturally relevant and geographically specific to understanding the needs of Indigenous peoples.14

Another fundamental aspect to keep in mind is the immense diversity among various Indigenous populations in Canada. A study of First Nations in British Columbia found considerable variations between communities, with some of them ranking much higher than the Canadian averages on several child development indicators.15 In order to understand the unique needs of individual communities, it is vital to systematically collect and compare reliable data in order to create relevant and targeted policies.

Furthermore, it is fundamental that Indigenous people have jurisdiction to collect data that is the most relevant to their goals. The First Nations Regional Health Survey and First Nations Regional Early Childhood, Education and Employment Survey are examples of initiatives that have led to increased Indigenous participation based on appropriate data governance measures and local research capacity building. The British Columbia First Nations Data Governance Initiative and the Urban Indigenous Knowledge Network are also examples of evolving research governance initiatives and best practices.16

To sum it up, in order to create long-term meaningful impact, it is essential to expand the reach of Indigenous-centred ECE programming by providing sufficient funding opportunities and promoting collaboration between various ECE stakeholders. Of course, Indigenous ownership must remain at the heart of the governance structure to ensure the relevance of policies.

The next blog in this series tries to unpack the characteristics of successful Indigenous-centred early childhood education programs. Continued reading ...

1    Public Health Agency of Canada, Evaluation of the Aboriginal Head Start in Urban and Northern Communities Program at the Public Health Agency of Canada (Ottawa: PHAC, 2012; accessed October 4, 2016).

2    Health Canada, Aboriginal Head Start on Reserve, (accessed May 24, 2016).

3    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), 28.

4    Public Health Agency of Canada, Evaluation of the Aboriginal Head Start in Urban and Northern Communities Program at the Public Health Agency of Canada (Ottawa: PHAC, 2012), section 2.2. (Accessed October 4, 2016.)

5    Health Canada, Indigenous Head Start on Reserve—Backgrounder, (accessed May 25, 2016).

6    Statistics Canada, Table 4, Age Distribution and Median Age for Selected Aboriginal Identity Categories, Canada, 2011, (accessed October 4, 2016).

7    Health Canada, A Special Study on First Nations Culture and Language in Aboriginal Head Start on Reserve (AHSOR) (Ottawa: Health Canada, 2012),10.

8    Jane P. Preston, Michael Cottrell, Terrance R. Pelletier, and Joseph V. Pearce, “Indigenous Early Childhood Education in Canada: Issues of Context,” Journal of Early Childhood Research 10, no. 1 (February 2012), 6.

9    Ibid.

10  Public Health Agency of Canada, Evaluation of the Aboriginal Head Start in Urban and Northern Communities Program at the Public Health Agency of Canada (Ottawa: PHAC, 2012), section 3. (Accessed October 4, 2016.)

11  Ibid.

12  Department of Education, Culture and Employment and Department of Health and Social Services, A Framework for Early Childhood Development in the Northwest Territories (Yellowknife: Government of the Northwest Territories, 2013), 14.

13  Ibid.

14  Jeanette Steffler, “The Indigenous Data Landscape in Canada: An Overview,” Indigenous Policy Studies 5, no. 2 (2016), 149–64.

15  Senate Standing Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology, Early Childhood Education and Care: Next Steps (Ottawa: Senate of Canada, 2009), 51.

16  Jeanette Steffler, “The Indigenous Data Landscape in Canada: An Overview,” Indigenous Policy Studies 5, no. 2 (2016), 160–61.

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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.