Public Policy Issues

Policies Affecting Aboriginal Fathers

This article, which examines policies which have an impact on  aboriginal fathers, is a chapter in FIRA's Inventory of Policies and Policy Areas Affecting Father Involvement.



An area of increasing interest among researchers and policy makers in recent years is the changing role of fathers and the explicit desire to support father involvement as a way to enhance children's health and well-being. Although scholarly interest in fatherhood emerged in the early 1970s and 80s, the bulk of studies and policy work on fatherhood is very recent - much of it dating from the mid-1990s onwards.

This article is a chapter in the recently released Inventory of Policies and Policy Areas Influencing Father Involvement which is a collaborative document which has benefited from the ideas and suggestions of others. It is supported by funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC - CURA). For a full copy of this document click on Inventoryof Policies and Policy Areas Affecting Father Involvement on the left hand side of this page.

 Policies Affecting Aboriginal Fathers by Lynda M. Ashbourne

Specific Issues and Policies

    Although there is great emphasis placed on the importance of children and raising children within the Aboriginal community, there has been relatively little written about the specific role of Aboriginal fathers in their children’s lives.  Public policies, institutional practices, local governance, and community resources and supports all affect Aboriginal fathers, both as fathers in the same way as other fathers are affected, but also uniquely as Aboriginal fathers.  This uniqueness requires particular understanding of systemic inequities and unique circumstances (for example, the impact of residential schools, the prevalence of Aboriginal children still being removed from their homes and communities by child protection agencies, remote and isolated communities), as well as an understanding of the importance of addressing the capacities of communities to support fathers and maintain strong kinship and cultural ties.

    There are several overlapping areas and jurisdictions for setting and implementing social policy that affect Aboriginal families.  These include federal, provincial, territorial, and, in instances of self-government, First Nations or Inuit legislation or jurisdiction.  In addition, the availability and range of services offered depends on local communities as well as, sometimes, First Nations status and location (on or off reserve).  In our discussion, we will be using the more inclusive term Aboriginal to refer to First Nations people (status and non-status) as well as Inuit and Metis, but it should also be noted that these designations can themselves influence access to services and supports.

    The growing Aboriginal population is young, mobile and becoming increasingly urbanized.  According to Statistics Canada 2001 census figures, one-half of the total Aboriginal population now lives in urban centres, while one-third lives on reserves.  Many Aboriginal people move frequently, between rural or reserve locations and urban centres, and within urban centres.  Aboriginal children are twice as likely as non-Aboriginal children to have moved within the past year (Blackstock et al., 2004).  This high mobility of families can influence their awareness of, and ability to access services that support parents and children.

    While comprising 3.3% of the Canadian population, Aboriginals make up 5.6 % of the population under 14 years of age.  The Aboriginal population is growing faster than the non- Aboriginal population at 1.5 times the non-Aboriginal birthrate, and shows growth of 22% between 1996 and 2001 compared to 3.4% for the non-Aboriginal population (Statistics Canada, 2003).  The unemployment rate for Aboriginals is higher than that of non-Aboriginals, and the transition into the labour force has proven to be particularly difficult for those who are young (15 – 24 yrs.) with low levels of education (Statistics Canada, 2005b).

    Aboriginal children are more likely to live with one parent, often their mother.  According to Statistics Canada 2001 figures, 65% of Aboriginal children on reserves, and 50% of those living in urban centres live with both parents, compared to 83% of non-Aboriginal children who live with both parents.  Extended family and other community members also take on important caregiving roles, and Aboriginal children more frequently live with a relative or non-relative other than their parents than do non-Aboriginal children. Aboriginal children are four times more likely to be born to adolescent parents (Blackstock et al., 2004).

    A sad reality is that Aboriginal children continue to be over-represented in the child welfare system. Blackstock et al. (2004) estimate that between 30 and 40% of all Canadian children in the care of child welfare agencies are Aboriginal.  They further state that this over representation does not hold if factors of poverty, housing and substance misuse are controlled for.  These children are most often identified as needing care as a result of neglect, at almost twice the rate of non-Aboriginal children (Blackstock et al., 2004).  The First Nations Child and Family Service Agencies (FNCFSA) and Department of Indian and Northern Affairs conducted a study in 2000 which suggested that 22% less funding is available to FNCFSAs than to their provincial counterparts, and that there is inadequate funding for “least disruptive services” – those which would allow children at risk to safely stay in their own homes (Blackstock et al., 2004; FNCFSA, 2005).

    Family poverty is significant for Aboriginal people. According to Blackstock et al. (2004), in 1996 only 48% of Aboriginal men were employed, with just over one-third of Aboriginal men and women working full-year and full-time.  This compares to 65.5% of non-Aboriginal men reporting employment, with half of the total Canadian population reporting full-time, full-year work.  Measures of adequate housing and food also indicate significant poverty conditions for Aboriginal families, both on and off reserve (Blackstock et al., 2004).

    Aboriginal men are disproportionably represented in the prison system (one in five incarcerated men in Canada are Aboriginal (Statistics Canada, 2005a)) and young Aboriginal men die at a higher rate than the rest of the Canadian population as a result of suicide or unintentional injury (Health Canada, 2005).   These factors contribute to the context of Aboriginal men’s lives and the challenges to their involvement in their families’ lives.

    In considering the experience of Aboriginal families it is important to acknowledge the role played by systemic racism that affects the involvement of fathers in their children’s lives and the social exclusion of Aboriginal peoples in general.  Jessica Ball and Ron George (2006), describe the impact of this racism on Aboriginal fathers:

Provisions in the Indian Act effectively work to diminish the population eligible for federal entitlements as Status Indians.  Jurisdictional ambiguity for First Nations people’s health and social services has reduced the transparency and accessibility of services.  Domination of social services by non-Aboriginal agencies and personnel has limited the cultural acceptability of services to Aboriginal children and families. In addition to being harmed by racist legislation, insufficient funding and lack of appropriately trained personnel has meant that even when promising policies are in place, there is persistent and pervasive failure of service systems to deliver in timely and needed ways. (p.2)

    It is important to note that the specific circumstances, policies and practices that influence Aboriginal fathers and their involvement with their children will vary across communities.  Community-specific action and policy development will best address these particular circumstances when they are rooted in that community’s experience and are best directed by Aboriginal people themselves. In this section we will highlight some of the broad areas of social policy and institutional practice which frequently will be factors in enhancing or limiting Aboriginal father involvement.  This overview is not intended to be exhaustive, given the localized differences between settings and communities, and it is not intended to replace consultation with fathers, mothers and elders within Aboriginal communities.

Significance and Potential Influence on Fathers

    Issues concerning paternity designation have been outlined elsewhere in this document (see Section A: Paternity Determination).  As with other issues that affect father involvement for non-Aboriginal fathers, the impact of paternity designation, or lack thereof, is experienced by Aboriginal fathers in similar ways to other fathers, as well as in particularly unique ways.  Paternity designation for First Nations children may result in their being inappropriately registered or inappropriately denied registration under the 1985 Indian Act.  Clatworthy (2004) notes that, although there is wide variation between regions and individual First Nations, nearly 1 in 5 children born to Registered Indian women between 1985 and 1999 did not have a reported father on official documents. In addition to parents, there are community health care and hospital staff, provincial birth registration and First Nations registration administrators, and federal regional managers of Indian registration involved in the birth registration process (Clatworthy, 2004).

    There is a higher rate of unstated paternity in communities which do not have community based maternity facilities and are a greater distance from maternity facilities (Clatworthy, 2004).  Fathers may not be able to accompany mothers who have to travel outside of their home communities and cannot, therefore, sign birth documentation even when paternity is designated.  First Nations registration administrators identify that lack of paternity designation is often reflective of a lack of awareness and understanding, on the part of parents, about the registration process and the importance of paternal identity to establishing a child’s entitlement to registration.  These administrators also state that it is their belief that, in many instances, the lack of paternity designation is reflective of the mother’s wishes, often based on concerns about the stability or safety of the current relationship between parents.  Other contributing factors identified by registration administrators are the father’s denial of paternity, the mother not wishing the rest of the community to know the father’s identity, the mother’s fears of losing her own status, and financial barriers with respect to making amendments to birth registration (Clatworthy, 2004).   In addition to clarifying administrative processes and increasing awareness of the implications of unstated paternity, the ways in which paternity is constructed and supported within the community, as well as how issues of unstable or violent relationships and mothers’ concerns are addressed, are important aspects of the paternity designation process.  It is important that mothers, fathers and community elders participate in the discussion of these aspects of fathering.

    Services that are offered to parents may be included within health, social services, and education programs.  For example, Aboriginal Head Start (AHS) programs, which are offered in large and smaller urban centres as well as remote and isolated communities, encourage parent involvement in their programming and planning.  Of 114 sites, 43 have full-time parent outreach workers and 3% of the sites have team members who specifically work with fathers (Aboriginal Head Start, 2002).  Seventeen AHS sites offer specific programming for fathers such as Dads Can and fathers’ circles and encourage fathers’ participation in shared lunches and family days (Aboriginal Health Start, 2002).  Child care and development programs in some communities also emphasize culture, English and Aboriginal languages, and nutrition and early childhood socialization, as well as access to health care and screening (Ball, 2005).  Such programs, when located in community centres, can become an entry point for parents into programs directed toward themselves and other family members (Ball, 2005).  This type of programming for parents can then be informed by their specific needs and those of the local community, ensuring cultural integrity and service that is responsive to need.

    Evelyn Peters (2004) recently talked about the unique ways in which urban Aboriginal communities are forming and organizing a variety of institutions that provide services and support across cities, irrespective of specific status.  There are, of course, also unique challenges and opportunities that are presented when providing service within more remote or isolated communities.  The important aspect of community development in service planning and delivery helps ensure that programs are listening for, and responsive to the particular needs of each community and the individuals within it.  With respect to engaging and supporting fathers, the needs of individual fathers and the construction of fatherhood by the rest of the community are important aspects in determining whether or not the services being considered or provided are appropriate.

    In some instances, provincial/territorial and federal governments disagree with respect to who is responsible for offering services to Aboriginal peoples.  Such jurisdictional gaps or wrangling may lead to inadequate funding or program offerings within specific communities or inconsistent supports for families.

    Poverty has a direct and indirect influence on father involvement.  When men are unable to relocate to be near to their families, when they are unable to afford transportation to and from services designed to support themselves and their families, and when they are unable to fulfill the role of provider with respect to food, adequate housing and financial support, their role and involvement in their families is marginalized.  Inadequate and inconsistent housing contributes materially to family and child poverty, as well as potentially limiting access to formal and informal support systems.  Particularly for those families living in urban centres, an address is often required in order to maintain a place on waiting lists for programs such as child care and social service supports.  The psychological impact on a father of not being able to provide adequately for his children can be significant, and this can negatively influence the maintenance of father involvement.

    As noted earlier, Aboriginal children are over-represented in the child welfare system.  Because of the historical legacy of residential schools, it is particularly difficult for all members of Aboriginal communities to deal with ongoing and current instances of children being removed from their homes and communities.   With respect to the role of fathers, this may often mean that father-child relationships are severed or severely challenged.  When child welfare agencies are able to operate within ‘least disruptive interventions’ (Blackstock et al., 2004), then family relationships may be preserved and potentially enhanced.  Fathers, as well as mothers, who experience parenting skill deficits as a result of the impact on themselves or their own parents of residential school experiences, may be particularly reluctant and averse to attending group meetings or therapy when such meetings are held in institutional settings or are conducted in a manner that is insensitive to this legacy.

    Services that are provided to fathers for issues related to their mental health or substance abuse, or to men who are incarcerated can be sensitive to cultural, as well as parenting status.  In the section entitled “Fathers at Risk” (Section I), the specific challenges of attending to and addressing the role of father during assessment and treatment are outlined.  Addressing these challenges can be an important way of ensuring that the influence of mental health or substance abuse concerns on ability to parent is addressed.  In addition, the particular needs of Aboriginal men require attention when providing such services.  Cultural sensitivity, attention to the needs of individuals who live in remote or isolated communities for whom services may be delivered in a centre other than their own home community, awareness of the impact of historical experience, and local community needs are all important aspects of service provision.

Gaps, Critical Questions and Concerns

    Obstacles and facilitators of Aboriginal father involvement are similar to those that affect other fathers in many respects, but are also unique in many ways.  A highly mobile and young population, Aboriginal fathers may be separated geographically from their children for such reasons as employment or the healthcare/special needs of their children.  Aboriginal fathers may be separated culturally and linguistically from their own nation or community and therefore feel unable to share their cultural heritage with their children.  In some instances, Aboriginal fathers may have been adopted away from their nation or home community as children and be unaware of their own cultural heritage and thus unable to share this with their children.  The impact of residential schools, as noted earlier, has, in many instances, robbed parents and grandparents of positive parental skills and modeling, and separated them from their Aboriginal culture.

    The jurisdictional overlaps and gaps that are reflective of the multiple levels of government involvement in program offerings often results in fragmentation of services, inconsistencies across communities and regions, and unstable service provision.

    Social policy development and the design of appropriate institutional practices and community services that facilitate the inclusion and involvement of Aboriginal fathers in their families’ lives require creative and locally constructed and delivered solutions.  These solutions will honour the distinctive heritage of Aboriginal peoples and the values and circumstances of First Nations and local communities.   Inclusion of Aboriginal fathers and mothers as major stakeholders in discussions that identify gaps and concerns, as well as potential future directions and change is critical.

Key References

Abele, F. (2004). Urgent need, serious opportunity: Towards a new social model for Canada’s Aboriginal people. CPRN Research Report F|39. Available at the Canada Policy Research Networks Web site:
Aboriginal Head Start. (2002). Aboriginal Head Start in urban and northern communities: Program and participants 2001. Minister of Public Works and Government Services document. Retrieved February 22, 2005, from
Ball, J. (2005). Early childhood care and development programs as ‘hook’ and ‘hub’ for intersectoral service delivery in First Nations communities. Journal of Aboriginal Health, 2(1),36-50.
Ball, J. & George, R. (2006). Policies and practices affecting Aboriginal fathers’ involvement with their children. Presentation at Second Tri-Annual Aboriginal policy research conference, Relationships: Policy, Research, and Results, held in Ottawa, March 22, 2006.
Blackstock, C., Clarke, S., Cullen, J., D’Hondt, J., & Formsma, J. (2004). Keeping the promise: The Convention on the Rights of the Child and the lived experience of First Nations children and youth. Retrieved March 28, 2006, from the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada Web site:
Castellano, M.B. (2002). Extended families, nuclear families, families of the heart. Contemporary Family Trends. Retrieved March 28, 2006, from The Vanier Institute of the Family Web site:
Clatworthy, S. (2004). Unstated paternity: Estimates and contributing factors. In J.P.White, P.Maxim and D. Beavon (Eds.), Aboriginal policy research: Setting the agenda for change, Vol.II. (pp. 225- 244). Toronto, ON: Thompson Educational Publishing, Inc.
First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada. (2005). A chance to make a difference for this generation of First Nations children and young people: The UNCRC and the lived experience of First Nations children in the child welfare system of Canada. A submission to the Standing Senate Committee on Human Rights, February 7, 2005. Retrieved March 28, 2006, from
Health Canada. (2005). First Nations comparable health indicators. Retrieved April 7, 2006, from
Mann, M. (2005). Indian registration: Unrecognised and unstated paternity. Retrieved March 28, 2006, from the Status of Women Canada Web site:
Newhouse, D., & Peters, E. (Eds.). (2003). Not strangers in these parts: Urban Aboriginal peoples. Retrieved March 28, 2006, from the Policy Research Initiative Web site:
Peters, E. (2004). Three myths about Aboriginals in cities. Presentation as part of Breakfast on the Hill Seminar Series, sponsored by the Canadian Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences on March 25, 2004. Retrieved March 28, 2006, from
Statistics Canada. (2003). 2001 Census: Analysis series. Aboriginal peoples of Canada: A demographic profile. Catalogue no. 96F0030X1E2001007. Available at
Statistics Canada (2005a). Adult correctional services in Canada: 2003/04. Juristat, 25(8). Available at
Statistics Canada. (2005b). Aboriginal peoples living off reserve in Western Canada: Estimates from the Labour Force Survey, April 2004 – March 2005. Catalogue no. 71-587-X1E. Available at