Indigenous knowledge in early childhood programs

Principal Investigator:
Jessica Ball (Faculty, School of Child and Youth Care, University of Victoria)

Community Partners:
Lil'wat Nation
Tl'azt'en Nation
Treaty 8 Tribal Association

Project background

Indigenous Peoples around the world are seeking ways to ensure that their unique cultural knowledges, languages, and ways of living in the world are transmitted to the next generation. In Canada, following the tragedy of the Indian Residential School Program, Indigenous Peoples have long sought authority over childcare, child welfare, and education programs for their children. In 1996, a ground-breaking, comprehensive report by the Royal Commission on Aboriginal People repeatedly identified early childhood programs as a critical avenue for laying the foundation of cultural literacy, heritage language learning, and positive Indigenous identity. Since 1996, there have been significant investments by the federal government to provide early childhood care and development programs, such as the Aboriginal Head Start program on reserves and in urban and northern communities. The Aboriginal Head Start program model is truly exemplary, with its mandated six components (health promotion, nutrition, education, culture and language, social support, and parental and family involvement) and openness to local innovation.

Aboriginal Head Start program

In communities that are lucky to have funding for an Aboriginal Head Start program, the program is invariably a pivotal place of engagement for family support, community development, and cultural revitalization.
It is widely recognized that although this investment has been sustained, it is not enough: most Indigenous children in Canada have no opportunity to participate in an early childhood program that recognizes or builds upon their cultural heritage. Most programs subscribe to so-called 'best practices' which are popular Euro-Western approaches to health, nutrition, early learning and socialization. Therefore, many Indigenous early childhood practitioners and funding agencies are asking: "Are we achieving our goals for transmission of culture and, if so, what components of our programs are having the desired effects on children's development?" Many non-Indigenous early childhood practitioners are also asking: "How can 'mainstream' early childhood programs support positive cultural identity of children who are not of the same culture as the program staff?" This project explored these questions.

Project goal

The project documented how Indigenous cultures and goals for cultural transmission are convey in Indigenous early childhood care and development programs.

Project activities

Through collaborations with early childhood care practitioners in First Nations, this project: 

  • Examined First Nations practitioners' goals for cultural transmission in children's programs and how they set out to achieve these goals
  • Documented program elements that staff identified and defined as cultural elements
  • Explored the role and cultural influence of First Nations child-care practitioners themselves on children's cultural programming and children's development
  • Explored impacts of cultural childcare programs on children's cultural literacy and identity as preliminary clarification for future research.

Project outcomes

This project has helped to stimulate critical discourse about the meaning, manner, and intention of embodiments of culture in programs that have an explicit goal of cultural transmission. Research yielded an extensive repository of tangible curriculum elements and forms of interaction among Indigenous staff and children that can engender cultural awareness, cultural learning, and positive cultural identity.


Project funding was provided by the B.C. Ministry of Children and Family Development through the Human Early Learning Partnership: and through the federal Social Development Partnerships Program of Human Resources Canada.


View all reports and resources related to this project.