Aboriginal Father Involvement Programs: A National Scan


Aboriginal Father Involvement Programs: A National Scan, by Jessica Ball, MPH PhD.& Sarah Moselle, BA from the University of Victoria, a study released this March, found just 35 programs across the country that serve Aboriginal fathers.  The scan was initiated at the request of the Healthy Child Development Section of the Public Health Agency of Canada in response to anecdotal comments suggesting “a growing grassroots effort across the country to create and implement strategies that support Aboriginal fathers’ involvement with their children.” The findings of the intensive scan were that there are “large gaps, and the distribution of programs appears to be uneven, with British Columbia, Saskatchewan and Ontario having quite a bit of activity while other provinces and territories have fewer initiatives that could be found.”


The study notes that, “Respondents in diverse locations, catering to a range of participants, reported a number of overlapping obstacles to initiating and sustaining programming for fathers.  There are difficulties finding and funding suitable father outreach workers, as well as challenges to attracting fathers or sustaining their involvement over time.  These latter challenges include transportation barriers, underemployment and sporadic/seasonal employment, and residual fall-out from residential schools.”

Successful programs demonstrate “a wide variety of practices that warrant further documentation and impact evaluation.  Those communities that run successful weekly, monthly or annual events for fathers report that these programs benefit fathers, families, and the community in general.  These benefits include strengthening families and fostering healthy relationships, and encouraging cultural connectedness.

Programming varies in terms of content, frequency and logistics, ranging from weekly drop-in groups to 12-week violence prevention programs.  Despite their diversity, there were overlapping responses from program coordinators emphasizing that the strength and success of their program is rooted in the program’s cultural relevance.”

Many communities expressed interest and plans to initiate programs and events for Aboriginal fathers if funding sources can be identified.

The study found that “father’s involvement, outreach and support efforts must be uniquely tailored to each community’s needs.”  Existing successful initiatives range across a spectrum of approaches, including:

  1. Sending snacks or show-and-tell items to school:  “This approach does not specifically involve fathers; rather, it is a way to generate connection and pride in parents for children in situations where parents have limited involvement in the child’s schooling due to geographic limitations, substance abuse, and/or illiteracy.”schoollunch2
  2. Annual school solstice celebration:  “For communities where it is not possible to develop programming for fathers, schools can involve fathers through annual celebrations” involving fathers in activities such as coming to class and talking about traditional seasonal activities for men, and sharing skills such as snow-shoe making.
  3. Mobile activity and resource provider:  “The Native Council of Nova Scotia operates a mobile resource and activity bus that goes directly into communities on a monthly basis, connecting parents with relevant resources and supports and providing activities for families.  This practice is suited for small communities that could not independently sustain this type of programming.”
  4. Community garden:  To accommodate fathers who work seasonally or have irregular or rotating work schedules, a community garden offers a fun, flexible base for family programming.  A community garden “provides an opportunity for fathers to teach children about self-sufficiency, dedication, and healthy foods.  It is inexpensive to operate, and participants are rewarded with harvest at the end of the growing season, which can be shared with family and community members.”gardening
  5. Weekly drop-in groups:  These can vary widely.  Some include sharing circles on issues such as fathering when you have not had experience of having a father active in your own life (‘fathers without fathers’).  The Tillicum Lelum Friendship Centre on Vancouver Island is cited as an example by the study.  It’s 5-hour Saturday morning drop-in is divided into 4 parts: 1) ‘Life Skills’: “the dads cook breakfast, and then share it with the group, after which one half supervises the children while the other half cleans up”; 2) ‘Traditional Teachings’:  “smudging, pipe ceremonies, debriefing about the week”; 3) ‘Parenting Skills Workshop’:  the children go into day care whilst the fathers attend the workshop session; 4) an hour of physical activity with the fathers and children.
  6. Anti-violence or behaviour-modification programs:  In some cases, fathers who do not have access to their children are referred by the courts or by Child and Family Services to supervised programs.  As well, as part of the nationwide movement to combat family violence in Aboriginal communities, some organizations offer violence prevention programs for young men.  Both types of programs typically involve a planned curriculum delivered in sessions ranging from 8 to 24 weeks.  Almost all of these programs include “a component on fathering and nurturing a positive relationship with children.”


Common elements of outreach and support initiatives include:

  • Facilitators:  Finding suitable facilitators can be challenging:  “many reporters indicated that programming for men is best facilitated by men – ideally Aboriginal men.  This was not the case with all organizations; the importance of male facilitation may vary according to community and program type.”  In addition to the program facilitator, “some programs attribute their success to the inclusion of Elders in facilitation” with the Elder being awarded an honorarium for attending program sessions.
  • Food:  Food is central to many programs.  “A number of Friendship Centres reported that the family activities that attract the most men and fathers are the ones that involve a dinner.”  Often this involves the fathers directly in the preparation of the food; but it also includes community gardening, or providing nutritious snacks for a child’s class at school.
  • Male Friendly Resources & Programs:  “As yet, there is no dedicated funding stream for fatherhood programming, and consequently many of these programs are being cobbled together from an assortment of departments and staff at the community level….The drawback to this grassroots initiative is that, out of necessity, many of the resources being used are implicitly targeting women or non-Aboriginal men.”  The study includes an overview of resources for Aboriginal fathers in the Appendices (pp. 17-18).
  • Men don’t cry?  A reporter for a violence prevention program “described telling participants that sharing what one feels is not a form of weakness but rather a form of courage – courage to confront what is inside and courage to tell those around you who you really are”.  In a number of programs, “socialization into the ideals of the stoic male has proved to be obstacles initially, but these obstacles are not insurmountable.  Changing one’s perspective is the first step to changing one’s behaviour.”
  • Humility:  “Humility proved to be a recurring theme from BC to PEI.  For programs that seek to modify men’s behaviour, humility seems to be one of the most profound and thought-provoking elements of the curriculum.  Humility often comprises part of the cultural foundation for these programs….Just as men can be socialized into believing that ‘boys don’t cry’, they are also taught that ‘real men don’t ask for directions’  Humility requires men to set aside these notions of rightness and self-sufficiency and learn to admit when they’re wrong and when they need support.”
  • Cultures of Intervention:  Addressing the issue of why similar programs thrive in one community and fail in another the study finds that: “All of the evidence suggests that 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.”  In many communities, the concept of interventions for men may be unfamiliar.  One method of introducing the concept has been through residential-school issues.  Another has been through women advocating for services for men.
  • Challenges and successes: Challenges that were identified largely group under the following headings:
    •  Transportation;
    • Availability of suitable facilitators;
    • Seasonal work patterns for men, thereby curtailing their availability;
    • Substance abuse;
    • Separation or unorthodox family structures.

“Program coordinators devise ways to overcome these challenges, for example by providing bus tickets to participants or moving the location to a more accessible place. Despite these challenges, respondents were also able to describe a multitude of successes in reaching out to fathers, and benefits accrued to families and to the community as a whole by supporting fathers. Some of these successes include:

  • Re-establishing traditional parenting values;
  • Connecting young men and their children with Elders;
  • Providing a network of peer-support between father-figures; fostering supportive relationships between mothers and fathers, regardless of whether the parents are in a couple, live together or live separately;
  • Educating fathers about parenting;
  • Connecting fathers to relevant supports and resources.

Some respondents noted that the peer networks established within the program carried over into the men’s lives outside the program. A selection of Maternal Child Health and Prenatal Programs at Friendship Centres and Health Centres were pleased to find that fathers who got involved in these early childhood programs then became involved in other offerings and utilized other services provided by these organizations. In some instances, programs were so successful that participants asked for follow-up programming or asked to take the program again. For example, the participants in a 12-week violence prevention initiative in PEI found the program so beneficial that they have asked for a follow-up activity drop-in group for fathers and children.

Finally, responses to the study emphasized the importance of cultural relevance in programming for Aboriginal fathers.  “Cultural relevancy is brought to programs in a number of different ways. Some programs engage fathers and children in traditional arts such as basket-making or drumming. Others use traditional teachings to lend new perspectives and generate discussion in talking or sharing circles. One successful approach that appears to transcend geographic location or community-specific situations is the inclusion of Elders in programming. Elders may be brought in to facilitate discussions, share their knowledge, lead activities for fathers with or without their children, or they may simply act as a guiding presence from whom participants may seek council.”

Click here to access this study.