Manitoba·Opinion

'Bold' approach offers hope for child welfare

Concerns for child welfare in Winnipeg have been mounting, and it is indigenous children who experience the weight of this problem.

Approach involves asking the community what it wants, keeping children and parents together

Difficulties in ensuring the welfare of indigenous children are rooted in history, particularly the lingering effects of residential schools. The Winnipeg Boldness Project seeks to create the conditions for children to remain with their parents and asks the community what it wants to achieve its goals. (CBC archives)

Concerns for child welfare in Winnipeg have been mounting, and it is indigenous children who experience the weight of this problem.

According to the Assembly of First Nations, the number of indigenous children in care across Canada is equal to or even greater than the number of children who were taken during the height of the residential schools.

As the closing events of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission begin next week, Canada needs leaders who will continue to carry the torch and make changes for today's children.

This is what the Winnipeg Boldness Project seeks to do. This social experiment lab in the Point Douglas community started in 2014, supported by the Province of Manitoba's Early Childhood Development Innovation Fund, the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation, and the United Way of Winnipeg.

They are using community knowledge alongside early childhood development research to tackle longstanding concerns for kids in the North End of Winnipeg, an area of the city with a strong indigenous culture.

For the Boldness team, it is not about creating a program model and attempting to get community members to buy into it. It's about asking the community what they need and acting on that vision.

"The ideas are all coming from the community, not from us. The community is already saying, 'This is what we want.' We are just trying to design the prototype for what they want," said project director Diane Roussin.

This approach towards social change is one of the first in Winnipeg of this scale, and with a focus on indigenous research methods.

It is this design process that makes it a leader in community development.

As they spoke with North End community members, ideas for change quickly began to surface with a list of over 50 eventually being whittled down to 5 as a starting point. 

Families identified these as areas for action that could help their kids to live a happy and healthy life. 

These "proofs of possibilities" include:

  • Canada Learning Bonds - a federal program that allows families to invest in their child's education from birth with free money in the form of a Registered Education Savings Plan. Uptake is low in Point Douglas and the project is attempting to raise participation in the program.
  • ​Family Centred Decision-Making — Placing the child and family at the centre and asking them what they need. The role of professionals is to resource those needs.
  • Transportation — making sure that families are able to access affordable transportation
  • Hub of strength — acknowledging  natural support systems such as neighbours, schools and families as having equal weight to that of professional care. 
  • Supports of Dads — Providing supports for fathers and places where whole families can attend programming.

Families have been raising these concerns for many years. By the end of the project we will be able to see it in writing.

"This project is trying to document stuff that has been going on for a long time. Stuff that we know works. Many of these things are in place but they are not getting the kind of traction that we would like to see," said Roussin.

By sharing a strengths-based narrative of the North End the project is inspiring hope for community kids.

Concerns rooted in history, residential schools

The concerns raised for indigenous children and child welfare in Winnipeg are rooted in Canadian history, going all the way back to residential schools.

Even though the schools have closed, the effects still live on today. One of the key reasons for indigenous children ending up in out-of-home care is neglect.

This is most often due to poverty, inadequate housing and unemployment. More attention needs to be focused on prevention and providing the tools and supports needed to keep children at home.

This is all part of the vision of the Winnipeg Boldness Project:

"What if, in the wake of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission that has exposed the horrors inflicted on aboriginal communities in residential schools — tearing families apart by separating children from their parents — the true reconciliation we need to embark on as a nation begins with the birth of a new generation of kids whose hallmark isn't their separation from, but their secure attachment to, their families and their neighbourhood?"

"The Winnipeg Boldness Project firmly believes that children are sacred; each one is a gift that should be placed at the centre of the community and surrounded with the supports he or she needs to develop and grow in a healthy way. By partnering with the community and tapping into the deep pool of knowledge that already exists within its residents, this is a scenario that can be achieved in the North End of Winnipeg." (www.winnipegboldness.ca)

There are many reasons to be concerned for indigenous children in Canada. Yet the country is also home to many innovative leaders.

By following their example, all Canadians have the opportunity to heal from the trauma and horror of our past, and work towards a brighter future.


Aleah Isaak is a freelance writer and family social science student at the University of Manitoba.

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