Positive Indigenous Fatherhood


Work with fathers to increase their confidence in their fathering role ;
Understand the influence of colonization on the role traditionally devolved to fathers in matters of education ;
Offer teachers some avenues of intervention to increase the value devoted to the fathering role and deconstruct the gender stereotypes associated with it, as well as masculinity.
Positive Indigenous Fatherhood

Brief description of the issue

Many Indigenous fathers in Canada face challenges in maintaining connections to their children and in feeling confident in their fathering role (Ball & Daly, 2012). According to studies on the topic, “low participation of Indigenous fathers in infant and early childhood care has common across First Nations, Métis and Inuit communities and early childhood programs in Canada” (Ball, George, Manahan & Joe, 2013, p. 1). Common successful elements of outreach and support initiatives include addressing gender and especially male stereotypes (Moselle & Ball, 2013). Including fathers in culturally relevant and positive parenting programs and support initiatives could be of utmost importance in aboriginal children’s well-being (Ball, 2012).

Indigenous Fatherhood: a bit of context

Ball (2012) underscores the distinctiveness of Aboriginal families in Canada, explaining that they are unique in many ways when compared to non-Aboriginal households:

  • There is a higher rate of common law unions, higher levels of mobility and more children younger than 14 years of age within Aboriginal households;
  • Aboriginal men are less likely to be coresident with their children;
  • Greater than one quarter of Aboriginal children are living in lone mother headed households;
  • There are twice as many Aboriginal fathers (6% of households) shouldering the responsibility of raising children alone compared with non-Aboriginal fathers;
  • There are more Aboriginal fathers who are the sole caregivers of their children when they take turns with their ex-partners in caring for children;
  • It is more common for Aboriginal men to have children with several different partners, and for fathers to live in households and be partly responsible for the care of children to whom they are variously related, including children with different mothers, their current partner’s children, children who spend part of each week or part of each year living with them, and so on;
  • Continuing a culturally traditional pattern, many Aboriginal families do not conform to a typical Euro-Western nuclear family structure; children may be raised by their grandparents or by a number of different relatives in “circles of care.”

Another important element of context to be aware of when looking at Indigenous fatherhood is the intergenerational negative effects of colonization, and especially of the residential schools. Ball (2012) lists the following effects of colonial interventions on Indigenous fathers:

  • Avoidance of government process;
  • Suspicious of schools;
  • Family violence;
  • Low self-worth;
  • Substance abuse;
  • No positive father model;
  • Poverty.

The author illustrates these effects through this figure.

The intergenerational transmission of fathering has been disrupted by the traumatic experiences of residential schools, making it more difficult for some Indigenous fathers to be positively involved with their children (Ball, 2010). The Indigenous fathers’ need for a healing process has been documented by many First Nations scholars (Ball, 2012). Therefore, Indigenous fathers involvement programs should take into account the sociohistorial context that has led to the current situation and include healing activities.

Benefits of Having Fathers and Grandfathers Involved

According to B.C. First Nations Summit Grand Chief Edward John, “Fathers may be the greatest untapped resource in the lives of Aboriginal children and youth” (Ball & Manahan, 2010). There are indeed many health outcomes for children associated with father involvement, among them (Ball, 2012):

  • Cognitive outcomes
    • Enhanced cognitive functioning
    • Higher IQ
  • Academic outcomes:
    • Better academic achievements
    • School connectedness
    • Higher educational attainment
  • Psychological and emotional outcomes
    • Resiliency
    • Lower levels of depression
    • Life satisfaction
    • Self-acceptance/Self-esteem
    • Less stress
  • Social-Interaction outcomes
    • Attachment
    • Supportive social networks
    • Positive peer relations
    • Empathy
    • Conformity to rules, conventions, values, ethical standards
    • Less delinquent behaviour

Obstacles and Barriers Preventing Fathers from Playing their Role

Aside from the obstacles mentioned earlier that relate to colonization and intergenerational trauma, there are a few obstacles and barriers that can prevent fathers from getting involved in a positive way with their children, and that need to be taken into account when crafting workshops and programs intended at them:

  • Racism: Indigenous people in Canada are still experiencing racism in many settings, and fathers interviewed in a study described “feeling unwelcome in off-reserve facilities such as well-baby clinics, child development centres, libraries and even playgrounds” (Ball, 2012).
  • Knowledge: fathers may not know what is expected of them when they enter “a health-care facility, visiting hours, meals, possible costs for medications, supplies, and specialist visits, and so on” (Ball, 2012).
  • Mother-centric approach: fathers interviewed for the study didn’t perceive that the programs in mainstream health, social, education and child protection service systems were targeted at them (Ball, 2012).
  • Availability: Fathers have identified the following barriers related to their capacity of being physically present for their children: work-scheduling conflicts, interruptions in contact with children due to fathers’ participation in work on trap lines or fishing boats far from home, and residential treatment or incarceration (Ball et al., 2013).
  • Self-esteem and self-confidence: Their own doubts about being suitable role models for their children (Ball et al., 2013). They also perceive an ambiguity in their fathering role.

Best Practices and Elements of Success

Indigenous fathers recognize the barriers that prevent them from being as much involved with their children as they would like to, but they also identify what they need to learn to be positively involved fathers and sustain connections with their children (Ball & Manahan, 2010). Ball & Manahan (2010) identify this as the 5 P’s: Key Support Strategies:

  1. Paternity recognition: Encourage fathers and institutions to record father’s name on child records: birth, health, child welfare, child care, and school.
  2. Program supports for fathers: Move beyond mother centrism in content, timing and staffing of programs: prenatal, infant home visiting, parent-tot play groups, child health and development clinics, early literacy, and parent education. Staff programs with father support workers.
  3. Positive media: Produce and promote positive images, stories and news about Indigenous fathers, creating a culture of positive expectations and appreciation.
  4. Patience: Support the journey of learning fatherhood with realistic expectations and long-term support. Change takes time and may occur in cycles of more or less connection.
  5. Policy reforms and programs that create equitable conditions for positive father involvement: Work towards federal and provincial policies that improve housing, training, employment, resources for family recreation, and overall opportunities for social inclusion of Indigenous men.

When looking at elements that combine to account for Indigenous men’s experiences of fatherhood, Ball (2009, p. 29) also notes the following: “personal wellness; learning fathering; socio-economic inclusion; social support; legislative and policy support; and cultural continuity.”

Finally, if we look at the outreach and support programs themselves, here are a few common elements of success found across Canada (Moselle & Ball, 2013):

  • Facilitators: programs tend to be more successful when they are facilitated by Aboriginal men and created by fathers, for fathers;
  • Food: family activities that attract the most men and fathers are the ones organized around a meal.
  • Male-Friendly Resources & Programs: very few resources targeted at Aboriginal men and fathers currently exist. Make sure to adapt the resources you are using to include men and fathers, using “parent” instead of only “mother”, for example.
  • Gender stereotypes: according to Moselle & Ball (2013, p. 7), “all men, perhaps especially Aboriginal men, have been socialized to believe that ‘big boys don’t cry.’” They perceive crying and emotions as signs of weakness, yet, programs “telling participants that sharing what one feels is not a form of weakness but rather a form of courage” helps change participants’ perspectives. Teaching humility as one of the Seven Grandfather teachings is also profound and thought-provoking in many programs aiming to modify men’s behaviour.
  • Cultures of intervention: according to a literature review and field-based research by Moselle & Ball (2013, p. 8), “programming for Aboriginal populations must be tailored to the exact community—generic programs for Indigenous populations will require extensive modification to fit the community context.”

Programs and tools to inspire you when designing your own program

Indigenous Fathers Involvement Resources Kit

Jessica Ball, in collaboration with Early Childhood Development Intercultural Partnerships, has developed a Resources Kit that can be ordered by Health & Community Services, schools, or any organization interested in developing a series of workshops targeted at fathers.

The Healing Journey

Website: http://www.thehealingjourney.ca/main.asp

This site offers a number of publications for people who are working in the area of family violence prevention for Aboriginal communities—both on- and off-reserve. Our Mi’Kmaq and Maliseet partners encourage you to use the information on this site. It may help you to create responses to family violence both in terms of crisis intervention, public education and prevention.

With Dad: Strengthening the Circle of Care

“How can we welcome fathers back into the circle of care in the post-residential school era in Canada?” This is the question addressed by the National Collaborating Centre for Indigenous Health during a national gathering. The proceedings summary as well as the video documentary can be a good starting point for a reflective discussion with a group of fathers.

Note: There is also a French version of the proceedings summary (Résumé des séances) as well as a version of the video documentary with French subtitles.

Fatherhood is Forever

The National Collaborating Centre for Aboriginal Health built a resource booklet for First Nations fathers in B.C., but it can be useful to share with fathers from other Nations in Canada. You can also use some of the tips to build your own series of workshops. Find the booklet here.


Note: featured picture from Ball et al. (2013).


Ball, J. (2009). Fathering in the Shadows: Indigenous Fathers and Canada’s Colonial Legacies. The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 624(1), 29–48.

Ball, J. (2010). Indigenous fathers’ involvement in reconstituting “circles of care”. American Journal of Community Psychology, 45(1–2), 124–138. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10464-009-9293-1

Ball, J. (2012). “We could be the turn-around generation”: Harnessing Aboriginal fathers’ potential to contribute to their children’s well-being. Paediatric Child Health, 17(7), 373–375. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3448537/

Ball, J. & Daly, K. (2013). Father involvement in Canada: Diversity, Renewal, and Transformation. Vancouver: UBC Press.

Ball, J., George, R., Manahan, C. & Joe, L. (2013). Indigenous Fatherhood. Early Childhood Developement Intercultural Partnerships. http://www.ecdip.org/fathers/

Ball, J., George, R., Manahan, C. & Joe, L. (2013). Indigenous Fatherhood. Early Childhood Development Intercultural Partnerships. http://www.ecdip.org/docs/pdf/rp/fathers.pdf

Ball, J. & Manahan, C. (2010). Understanding and Supporting Indigenous Fathers’ Journeys. Victoria: University of Victoria, School of Child and Youth Care. http://www.ecdip.org/docs/pdf/Father%20Poster%20vertical.pdf

Moselle, S. & Ball, J. (2013). Aboriginal Father Involvement Programs National Scan. Public Health Agency of Canada, Healthy Child Development Section. http://www.ecdip.org/docs/pdf/Aboriginal%20Father%20Involvement%20Programs%20National%20Scan.pdf