‘Invisible’ aboriginal dads under the microscope: The Current

'Fathers may very well be the greatest untapped resources in the lives of aboriginal children," said Edward John, lawyer and Grand Chief of British Columbia's First Nation Summit, in 2004.

‘Fathers may very well be the greatest untapped resources in the lives of aboriginal children,” said Edward John, lawyer and Grand Chief of British Columbia’s First Nation Summit, in 2004.

Seven years later, the issue of “invisible” aboriginal fathers remains largely unexplored, said Anna Maria Tremonti, host of CBC’s The Current.

She wants to get Canadians talking about it and she’s planning to do it from Whitehorse next month.

The Current will be hosting a town hall at the Yukon Arts Centre on Jan. 10. It will be recorded and turned into an episode and aired Jan. 12.

So what is an “invisible” father?

While terms like “deadbeat dads” tend to have a negative implication, generally referring to men who have shirked their family responsibilities, “invisible fathers” are not there for their children because of things that are largely out of their control.

In Canada’s aboriginal communities, the list of causes is lengthy.

“A lot of men are very committed fathers – and that includes in aboriginal homes,” said Tremonti in a telephone interview from Toronto this week.

“But you’ve got other circumstances. You do have the legacy of residential schools. If you look at traditional aboriginal parenting, there was more of a sense that fathers were providing for and protecting children. And then, something got broken.”

Residential schools didn’t just separate aboriginal children from their cultures, they raised them away from any semblance of a nurturing and healthy family setting. The century-long school regime was based on government policies of mass kidnapping and assimilation.

And the schools’ legacy includes the fact that generations of aboriginal students never learned how to be parents.

The traumatic experience of residential school and the extensive cases of physical, mental and sexual abuse also led to, and continues to lead to, rampant alcohol and drug abuses and high rates of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder.

In what are often related circumstances, aboriginal people are grossly overrepresented in the Canadian prison and justice systems.

“We were in Saskatchewan and I sat in a circle of young, aboriginal prisoners at the Saskatchewan institute,” recounted Tremonti. “Several of them had infants and young children. They spoke in really poignant terms about their children but they couldn’t be with them, obviously. And they talked about their own fathers. Anecdotally, you saw the connections to where they were, compared to where their fathers were.”

Predominantly, the traditional role of men in aboriginal cultures has always been one of the provider. They hunted and fished, made tools for hunting and nets for fishing, and set traps and snares. He made sure his family was fed and taken care of.

Perhaps the reserve system, loss of land and urbanization of aboriginal peoples has hurt the men hardest.

“That is certainly something we’re going to look at,” said Tremonti. “I think that that’s a factor in how we have this conversation. That will be something that’s on the table in this discussion.”

Tremonti said no one has the answers, and that’s the problem.

Most of the research and work done on family development and parenting tends to focus on mothers. And for good reason.

Single moms outnumber single dads, especially in aboriginal households where single mothers make up 70 per cent of single-parent homes, said Tremonti.

And there’s nothing wrong with focusing on women, but it’s time to talk about how fathers fit in, she added.

“It’s not either-or,” she said. “It’s not to the exclusion of women. It’s not to say, do this for the men and marginalize the women.”

The Fatherhood Institute in the U.K. points out that by focusing support services only on mothers, negative assumptions about the fathers are inadvertently made and men are continually pushed out of the situation. In other words, the lack of support and attention given to fathers means they are less likely to take hold of their roles.

Although there is a disparity between the amount of work done with mothers and fathers, there has been some work done on fathers, said Tremonti.

Extensive work has been done on absentee fathers in African-American communities in the United States and attempts to re-engage young black men, she said.

“There are those who say we can learn from what’s gone on in African-American families and fathers specifically,” Tremonti said. “And if that’s the parallel, what is going on in this country?”

The hope is not just to get the issue out in the open, but to bring forward ideas on how to address it, Tremonti added.

“I want people to think and I want them to think differently,” said Tremonti. “When you tackle some big issues, people have thoughts on them already. It’s always good to give a voice to people we don’t always get to hear.”

And that is exactly why the show decided to hold this discussion in Whitehorse, she said.

Northern aboriginal groups rarely get in the national spotlight, even though they face greater challenges, like isolation.

“Specifically on this issue, we hear statistics, but we don’t hear voices,” said Tremonti.

“I want this discussion to be for people in Whitehorse to be a part of and I want people across Canada to hear them.”

Tickets for the town hall on Jan. 10 at the Yukon Arts Centre are free and can be obtained by emailing cbcnorth@cbc.ca. It begins at 7 p.m.

Contact Roxanne Stasyszyn at