A version of this commentary appeared in the Winnipeg Free Press, the Huffington Post and Brandon Sun
To thrive economically, Manitoba needs young people. Fortunately, our relatively high birth rate — around 1.93 for every 1000 women — combined with favourable immigration trends means that Manitoba’s population will continue to grow.
However, if the success of a province can be captured by how well it prevents infant deaths, then statistics also tell us that we may be failing our children. For decades, Manitoba has consistently had the highest provincial infant mortality rate in Canada — 5.9 for every 1000 live births in Manitoba versus 4.8 for every 1000 live births, nationally.
In public health, infant mortality is often viewed as a marker for a society’s development, and Manitoba consistently falls to the bottom.
A report by the Manitoba Centre for Health Policy highlights that Manitoba also has one of the highest rates of children being taken into care in the world — an alarming statistic that should signal to all policy makers and politicos that something needs to be done differently.
Poverty, limited education, historical trauma and colonization, to name just a few factors — can be linked to both Manitoba’s high rates of infant mortality and kids in care — and puts children at risk for other negative health and social outcomes.
Clearly this is morally unacceptable — but what’s less often discussed is that failing our province’s children also puts Manitoba in economic jeopardy. Unless something is done to turn around both our province’s troublesome rates of infant mortality and the disturbing number of children being taken into custody each year, Manitoba will eventually find itself lagging in economic productivity.
If we, as a province, continue to fail our children, we will quickly see our economic competitive edge dulled.
Fortunately, there are opportunities for change. Manitoba is also producing some of the richest evidence on what could work to turn things around.
A Manitoba study recently published in Pediatrics found that the province’s Healthy Baby Program, which gives low-income mothers a modest income supplement of $81 per month — with no strings attached — is associated with several improved birth outcomes. This modest economic boost resulted in fewer low birth weight and premature births — both of which put infants at risk for dying before their first birthday.
Another Manitoba study found that the province’s Families First Home Visiting Program — which offers home visiting support to families with children from pregnancy to school entry, at no cost to the families — is associated with reductions in the number of children being taken into care, hospitalizations for child injury due to maltreatment and improved overall health outcomes.
Both of these programs provide us with a glimpse of what is possible. But we can still do better and we must do better. Unfortunately, these two programs do not reach all pregnant women and families in need. We need to expand these evidence-based programs to reach all families across the province.
Also, while these two programs do much to support families who are living on the margins, they are not able to address all of the numerous and complex challenges — like poverty, historical trauma and colonization — that these families still face. Both the new provincial and federal governments need to work together to implement programs that address such challenges and enact the Calls to Action outlined in the Truth and Reconciliation Report.
As a society, we must strive to ensure that all children have an equal opportunity to have a healthy and successful life.
We are at a critical junction as a province. We have the opportunity to make real changes to support children’s health. Our new government can leave a real and lasting legacy — significantly reducing the infant mortality rate in our province to at least the Canadian average and drastically reducing the number of children taken into care.
In short, our new government is poised to work to ensure that all children have an equal shot at life. By providing families with the right types of support, we can turn our province around and even become a leader in child health outcomes.
It’s time Manitoba provided the supports that struggling families need to continue to care for their children. Not only would this be something that previous governments have failed to achieve, but it would result in a healthier workforce that is better able to compete in this global market.
We have the evidence for how we can make a real difference; we just need to start putting that evidence to work.
Nathan Nickel is an advisor with EvidenceNetwork.ca and a Research Scientist at the Manitoba Centre for Health Policy. He is also an Assistant Professor of Community Health Sciences in the Max Rady College of Medicine at the University of Manitoba.
Michael Moffatt is a Paediatrician and a Professor in both Community Health Sciences and Paediatrics and Child Health at the University of Manitoba. He was formerly the Head of the Department of Paediatrics and Child Health and Medical Director for the Child Health Program of the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.