The Aboriginal Head Start Initiative (AHS) made its debut in Canada as a promise outlined in the Liberal Party’s Red Book “Creating Opportunity” launched in September 19, 1993. A commitment was made and then confirmed in the January 18, 1994 Speech from the Throne. During 1994, Aboriginal community consultations took place in 25 cities across Canada, involving 300 Aboriginal organizations (friendship centres, women’s shelters, child and family service organizations, etc.), and 400 discussion papers were also distributed to Aboriginal organizations across Canada (of which 40 provided written responses).
AHS was developed primarily on the information gathered from the cross Canada consultations, as well as child development research, including research and evaluations of the American Indian Head Start Program.
The 4-year pilot phase of AHS in Urban Centres and large Northern communities was announced by the Minister of Health Canada on May 29th, 1995 with a national budget of $87.3mil. This holistic education program for Aboriginal preschoolers and their families had six mandatory program components as follows;
- Parental involvement
- Culture and language
- Health Promotion
- Social support
These components were designed to help give children positive self-esteem, a desire for lifelong-learning and the opportunity to develop to their full potential as young people and throughout their lives.
The National AHS Principles and Guidelines developed in 1996 outlined the parameters for the Initiative. After a lengthy consultation process with AHS projects across Canada, this document was revised in October 1998.
Regional AHS Committee Evolution
In 1995 Interim Regional AHS Committees were established across Canada. In Ontario, the Aboriginal Management Committee (AMC) was selected as the Interim Regional AHS Committee to undertake initial AHS site selection. This committee was comprised of representatives from the Métis Nation of Ontario, the Ontario Métis and Aboriginal Association, the Ontario Federation of Indian Friendship Centres, the Ontario Native Women’s Association, the Ministry of Community and Social Services, and Health Canada.
Once AHS communities entered into the operational phase, the ongoing Regional AHS Committee, comprised of AHS project representatives was to be struck. After a lengthy transition process, the Ontario AHS Association adopted their terms of reference in December 16, 1999, and undertook the regional AHS roles and responsibilities.
National AHS Committee Evolution
Similarly, an Interim National AHS Committee was formed in 1995. From a cross-Canada nomination process that closed on May 22, 1995, 6 “nationally” selected representatives were chosen. In addition, 6 “regionally” selected representatives chosen by the Interim Regional AHS Committees, as well as several Health Canada national office staff. The committee’s role was to provide advice on issues national in scope such as evaluation, training, and program standards. For Ontario Marilyn Miller from Fort Erie, was the “nationally” selected rep and Sylvia Maracle from the AMC/Interim Regional AHS Committee was the “regionally” selected rep. By October 1997, the NAHSC having completed its initial role, evolved into the National AHS Council comprised of representatives selected by the Regional AHS Committee and the Public Health Agency’s National Office. Currently, the NAHSC representative for Ontario is Kevin Tegosh, OAHSA Director/Waabinong SSM site.
The Interim Regional AHS Committee initially selected 6 communities/8 projects to develop operational phase proposals;
- Ottawa Native and Inuit; 1) Makonsag AHS and 2) Sivummut HS Program
- Toronto; 1) Shaawanong & Waabanong, and 2) Epnigishmok
- Thunder Bay; Shkoday Abinojiiwak Obimiwedoon
- Hamilton; Niwasa Head Start Preschool
- Windsor; Ska’na Family Learning Centre
- Sault Ste Marie; Waabinong Head Start Family Resource Centre
Proposals for each of the 8 projects were recommended to the Minister of Health Canada, who approved them for funding.
In May 1996, the AHS Summer Program was recommended to the Minister of Health Canada, who approved funding for the project. Seven projects across Ontario were funded; Sioux Lookout, Timmins, Cochrane, North Bay, Barrie, Fort Erie, and Brantford. Each project operated a summer AHS project for seven or eight weeks in duration and 98 Aboriginal preschoolers received the benefit of this short-term school-readiness program. The program focussed on Aboriginal preschoolers entering school for the first time in September 1996. The final evaluation indicated that many children who participated in this program experienced positive changes and support for their transition into the school system.
In January 1998, the AMC recommended funding for another AHS site in Northern Ontario and invited three communities to submit funding proposals. Sioux Lookout (Waninawakang Aboriginal Head Start) was selected by the Interim AHS Committee, for recommendation to Minister of Health Canada, who approved the project for funding.
Following successful completion of the 4-year pilot phase, on October 19, 1998, the AHS Initiative became the AHS Program funded on an ongoing basis. At the same time, AHS was expanded to On-Reserve communities. This expansion was a result of commitments made in Gathering Strength: Canada’s Aboriginal Action Plan, Securing our Future Together, and the September 1997 Speech from the Throne.
October 31, 2002, the Secretary of State for Children and Youth, announced an expansion to both the Urban and Northern and On-Reserve components of AHS. The Proposal Review Sub-Committee, an arms-length extension of OAHSA, selected 4 communities to proceed with operational phase proposals. Also, the existing projects were recommended for ongoing operational budget increases. In May of 2003, a review of the operational phase proposals resulted in a recommendation to the Minister of Health Canada, who approved the following proposals for funding;
- Fort Erie
- Fort Frances; Zaagi’idiwin AHS
- Moosonee; Waweniwin Learning Centre
- Kiiwednong (replaced closure of Ska :na Family Learning Centre)