It’s a subject not everyone wants to talk about.
A 2011 Conference Board of Canada report found northern Saskatchewan had by far the highest rate of single-parent families in the country, at 37.5 percent, ahead of northern Manitoba and Kitikmeot, Nunavut.
The issue does not affect everyone equally. Aboriginal women, in particular, are disproportionally represented among single moms in the province. According to 2006 statistics from the Government of Saskatchewan, one in four Aboriginal women in the province is a single mom.
And that’s something Morinville, Alta. youth worker Conway Kootenay says needs to change.
Kootenay is not a sociologist, but merely a father of two with a message. He’s the founder of ‘Absent No More,’ a workshop aimed at getting absentee fathers back into their children’s lives. He believes that while most mothers form an instant bond with their child, the onus is on fathers to make an effort to be a part of their children’s lives.
“From a basic, fundamental human outlook, I think not having a father affects a child greatly,” Kootenay said. “It’s one thing to get it from a mother, because that’s there naturally. In a father, it’s different. In a child’s life, the father is the one person who basically chooses to either be in that child’s life or not be in that child’s life.”
And Kootenay believes that decision can have lasting repercussions on a child’s mental and emotional development.
And the statistics back that up.
According to research cited by the Canadian Children’s Rights Council, children who grow up fatherless are significantly more likely to become involved in crime, substance abuse and to drop out of high school.
Single moms in Saskatchewan tend to have lower average incomes than their counterparts, but face a higher cost of living. This is compounded by the north’s higher rates of unemployment, crowded/inadequate housing and isolation.
And while being a provider and helping to supply food, clothing and shelter is an important role for fathers, Kootenay says it also goes far beyond that.
“What’s even more important than that is loving my kids,” he said. “Giving my kids hugs, telling my daughters they’re beautiful every day, things like that.”
According to his own experience, Kootenay says many women who grow up without a father in their life don’t feel valued by men, which undermines their vital role in society.
“I can see a lot of that void in these young girls, so they search for (attention), whether it be through promiscuity, whether it’s just someone saying they’re beautiful, because they don’t have that at home,” he said.
“And so they repeat that cycle, and now they’re single moms.”
Absentee fathers present a different challenge for boys.
“I notice that a lot of our young men, when you’re raised by a woman, and only a woman, you really don’t know how to basically be a man,” Kootenay asserted. “How to stand on your own two feet, how to stick up for yourself and how to protect and provide.”
Kootenay says a good first step is for society to reinforce masculine roles which encourage men to provide and care for a family.
“When a woman has a menstrual cycle, that’s her way of coming into her own,” Kootenay said. “It’s a rite of passage. We as young men, we don’t have that.”
In Kootenay’s eyes, in many ways that rite of passage is having a child, something youth these days aren’t prepared for.
“When you have a child, you go from being a boy to a man,” he said. “And a lot of our young men don’t know how to deal with that, so they run.”
Kootenay comes to the issue from an interesting perspective. He didn’t grow up in a single-parent household, but he’s been a single dad.
He remembers people “looking at him like an alien” 14 years ago as he pushed his child in a stroller at West Edmonton mall, because people weren’t used to seeing a single young Aboriginal man caring for a child.
“Finding a change station in a men’s washroom, that was absolutely unheard of,” Kootenay said. “The majority of the time I’d have to find a corner and change her in her stroller. These are things people don’t look at.”
Although times have changed, and he’s now able to find change stations in many men’s washrooms, Kootenay still believes single fathers, just like single mothers, are in need of more support.
It’s part of the reason he started his workshop, and also a motivating factor in him creating a support group and forum specifically for single dads on his website.
He believes this is especially important because men, being men, are often afraid to ask questions.
“Dads are starting to support dads,” he said. “They’re saying ‘This is how you change a diaper, this is how I learned it’.”
That’s a good first step to Dr. Merv Johnson, who has worked in the area for more than 40 years as a physician. He says there’s a “real need” to strengthen the family unit both in Meadow Lake and surrounding communities.
“On average, we probably have 15 women come in with kids (every day),” he said. “So it kind of excites me hearing that. I think we could begin with that and then build on it.”
Johnson too believes the pattern of absentee fathers is a self-perpetuating one, especially among First Nations communities.
“I think it probably stems back to the residential schools,” he said. “The kids weren’t fathered, they’ve grown up not being fathers, so it’s an ongoing problem.”
Kootenay acknowledges that in many cases, single parent households cannot be avoided. But when they can be, it’s one piece of the puzzle in addressing northern Saskatchewan issues such as teen pregnancy, high unemployment and addiction.
“I see a lot of the roots of these social problems — and a lot of it comes from absent dads,” he said. “It’s a cycle that really needs to be looked at. How are we going to break this?”