5 years on, Maskwacis, Alta., early childhood program celebrates community connections and benefits

Five years ago people in Ermineskin Cree Nation, one of four First Nations in Maskwacis, Alta., launched a child development program called Early Years to fill a need. 

Annette Morin, currently a recruiter for the Early Years program, said the Indigenous-led program doesn’t tell parents what to do. Instead, it follows their lead and works to meet their unique needs. 

When she first started her work with the program as a family visitor, Annette said one of her families “was not in a good place.” 

After listening to the mom over several visits, Morin said she learned what the woman wanted and set out to help her achieve those goals. 

“That’s what’s so amazing about this job … We’ve given them that confidence that they can go forward, they can do whatever they want to do,” she said.

The connection between staff and families has become so close, parents who attended the anniversary party at Maskwacis said their children sometimes call their visitors “kohkum” (grandmother in Cree.) 

“We never expected that Early Years visitors would be helping parents go back to school or find employment, but once they become that trusted person, it’s truly wraparound [care],” said Chloe Ferguson, vice-president of the Martin Family Initiative (MFI), which helped Ermineskin develop its program. 

The inside of a bus has been renovated to include benches and tables to provide a playspace for preschoolers.
The Pe metawe (Come play) bus travels between the four communities in Maskwacis to help families who don’t have access to transportation participate in the program more easily, Christy Crane says. (Samantha Schwientek/CBC)

That care often extends to include things like food hampers, cultural and language supports, child care and learning how to co-parent after a breakup. 

“Children are sacred and our people know best what to do for them,” said Treaty 6 Grand Chief Leonard Standingontheroad.

Entire family benefits 

The program has shown other benefits. Immunization rates for program participants was five to six times higher than for non-participants, Ferguson said, referencing data from Maskwacis Health Services. 

Visitors — who do everything from helping families find housing to offering a listening ear to parents who need it — were a key part of that effort, she said. 

Visitors often helped with transportation for families and raised awareness of the importance of immunization during their visits. They work with families until the children “graduate” to kindergarten.

Christy Crane’s four-year-old son Maverick attends Early Years and Crane is the pre-school co-ordinator, working with kids two to four years old, and their parents. 

She said she wished she had had Early Years support when she was raising her two older teens, who she had at a young age. 

“I didn’t have someone to teach me my language, my culture and so I didn’t really get to do that with my older children,” she said. 

Mary Moonias sits at table while a second woman holds an umbrella to shield her from the sun.
Elder Mary Moonias, right, said she visits the child centre in Ermineskin Cree Nation regularly to share teachings with parents and babies. (Samantha Schwientek/CBC)

Ermineskin’s Early Years program includes a variety of cultural teachings, like language and beading. 

Crane said she’s been able to take the Cree she’s learned through the program and share it with her older children, adding that “it’s never too late to learn.”

While moms and kids are “the number one focus,” John Morin, a visitor who works with dads, said it’s also important to help fathers find their way. 

“Here at Early Years, we are ready, willing and able to go and do above and beyond work with the men around here,” said John Morin, who also works as a cultural helper with the program. 

“We play a big part in… teaching them the right ways of our culture, how we treat people, how we take care of our elders.” 

He has plans to do more with fathers in the future, including drum making, hunting trips and healing circles.

While the program works with moms, dads and babies, Annette Morin said parents take what they’ve learned in the program and share it with their extended families. 

“In working with one family, we might improve a whole family of 50,” Annette Morin said.

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