A northern childhood:

🕔Jan 28, 2008

There are over one million children in British Columbia and statistics show that our small rural northern communities are home to many of them. In fact, my little village of Telkwa, with 36 percent of its population under 14 years of age, has the highest proportion of children in all of British Columbia.
Not far away, the village of New Hazelton, and our far-northern neighbour Fort Nelson, are also flush with little ones, both having 34 percent children. With all these kids being reared in our great white north, it makes one wonder just how healthy and happy a childhood in northern BC is. What quality of life do our little ones have?
The term “quality of life” has escaped solid definition since ancient Greece when Plato asked, “What makes a good life?”
It is generally agreed that, for adults, meaningful employment, material well-being, a loving family, belonging in a community, and good health make for a high quality of life. For children, a healthy and happy life takes effective health care, strong community networks that support parents and provide learning opportunities, and, most obviously, nurturing relationships.

Child Health

The Northern Health Authority (NHA) is responsible for the delivery of health care to the northern part of BC. This northern region, with an area of over 600,000 square kilometers, is home to approximately 310,000 people with a wide spectrum of medical needs. There are approximately 7,000 medical staff and employees within the NHA’s region, including nine pediatricians caring for our children’s health and wellness.
Doctor Clare Moisey is one of these pediatricians. Doctor Moisey is Director for Northern British Columbia on the BC Pediatric Association, and chair of the Northwestern Medical Advisory Commission for the NHA. His practice, based out of the Dr. Moisey Clinic in Smithers, has served communities between Hazelton and Houston and north to Dease Lake for 20 years.
Dr. Moisey is openly critical of the state of children’s health care in the north. “We are not providing sufficient services to allow our children to succeed as well as they could,” he says.
He believes that northern pediatricians do the best they can with the services they have in their communities. “Our lab and our x-ray are good, and we have a good child physiotherapist and a good occupational therapist.”
But he is quick to point out that the hospital is lacking a CAT scan machine and staff to run one. And that is not all: he is certain that children could do better if they had better support services. “We need more therapists, and more time with therapists. We need more psychological diagnostic testing, and we need these services paid for.”
With the best interests of children in mind, Moisey strongly believes there is much room for improvement when it comes to providing health services for our northern children.
Despite the obstacles to pediatric care in the north, there are steps being taken to improve the quality of care. A renovated pediatric unit opened in January 2007 at the Prince George Regional Hospital. This newly expanded unit will provide improved family-centered care to seriously ill children in the community and region. It is hoped that this enhanced facility will help identify health problems early and provide supports to young children when they have the most time to benefit from therapies.
For those northern children who need to travel out of town for medical appointments, the NHA has started the Northern Health Connections bus for affordable and comfortable travel. There is also the BC Friends of Children Society that offers counseling, healthcare resource information and direct grants to children who are in medical need.
2007 saw the launch of Child Health BC, an initiative of BC Children’s Hospital that plans to provide easier access to specialized pediatric care across the entire province. Child Health BC aims to provide easier access to care, reduce travel time, and create a more efficient and collaborative system for child health in BC.
As residents of northern BC, we can be encouraged to see that our needs are known and there are steps being taken to advance the state of children’s health care here. However, we must remain vigilant to ensure that child health care in our region continues to improve.

Community Health

The extent of a child’s involvement in the community depends on who makes up the family and what values these family members hold. It also depends on what services our communities offer.
Healthy communities offer a range of recreational and leisure opportunities for parents and children: libraries, museums, cultural centres, seasonal sports, extra-curricular activities such as dance, music and other lessons.
There are also a multitude of churches throughout the Northwest for the many families who practice a faith.
Residents of northern BC are lucky to have wilderness close to home and valuable opportunities for a healthy outdoor lifestyle. Outdoor recreation possibilities range from a simple walk around the neighborhood to adventures in the backcountry.
As far as education, parents choose whether their children receive formal education at local schools or if they are home-schooled. Healthy communities recognize that, regardless of the method of education, what happens in a child’s first six years has a lifelong effect on health, mental ability and social skills. Healthy communities offer diverse learning opportunities for young children.
Shelley Worthington, coordinator of “Make Children First” for Smithers, Telkwa and Moricetown, believes that healthy children are the product of healthy communities.
This program supports the entire community: schools, non-profit organizations, health authorities, recreation providers and government, encouraging these groups to work together in new ways that promote the delivery of quality services to children and families.
The research of “Make Children First” is strengthening what parents have known all along: that giving children the best start takes safe and nurturing relationships, effective health care, strong community networks, learning opportunities, and support for parents.

Support for Parents

It doesn’t matter how wonderful the local recreation centre is or how many brilliant programs are offered for children at the cultural center if the parents do not have the money to drive children there and pay the fees.
In 2007, the BC Child and Youth Advisory Coalition stated that British Columbia has the highest child poverty rate in Canada for the fourth year in a row. According to data from 2005, British Columbia had a proportion of 20.9 percent of children living in poverty. This is well above the national average of 16.8 percent. (Note: Statistics Canada does not include first nations reserves in its child poverty statistics.)
Both the federal and provincial governments have programs meant to reduce the extent of child poverty.
The Child Tax Benefit is a monthly allowance that goes to every family in Canada. The federal government also pays a quarterly GST credit to low-income families. The provincial government provides welfare to those people who have exhausted all other forms of employment, and Employment Insurance is available for those who find themselves temporarily out of work. These programs aim to provide financial support to families, thereby reducing child poverty.
Although intended as a childcare benefit and not as a means to combat child poverty directly, the federal government provides the National Childcare Benefit where families receive $100 every month for every child under the age of six. There is also a Childcare Subsidy that eligible families can apply for to help with the cost of childcare.
Local governments are aware of the financial challenges many residents have. Most communities offer some type of affordable recreation either through municipal sponsorship or financial assistance.
Groups throughout the northwest such as the Child Care Resource Referral Center in Smithers, offer free drop-in programs for parents and their young children. Libraries often host a story hour for parents and kids for free or for a very low fee. Most representatives of summer programs and recreation centers advertise that financial assistance is available.
Community groups throughout the Northwest are continuing to develop affordable programs for children and their parents.

Our Responsibility

“Everyone in the community shares the responsibility for the early life of a child, and children benefit most if strategies are a result of broad community involvement,” says Shelley Worthington.
She and other early childhood professionals throughout the northwest are listening to what children and families want, investigating what children need, and helping our communities put children first.
We know that northern BC is a beautiful place to live. Now let’s all do our part to ensure that it is also a wonderful place for children to grow up.