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By Nathan C. Nickel
and Michael Moffatt
University of Manitoba

To thrive economically, Manitoba needs young people. And troublesome provincial trends must be addressed if we are to make the most of those young people.

The province’s relatively high birth rate – around 1.93 for every 1,000 women – combined with favourable immigration trends means that Manitoba’s population will continue to grow.

Nathan Nickel

Nathan Nickel

However, if the success of a province depends on how well it prevents infant deaths, then statistics also tell us that we may be failing our children. For decades, Manitoba has had the highest provincial infant mortality rate in Canada – 5.9 for every 1,000 live births in Manitoba versus 4.8 for every 1,000 live births, nationally.

Infant mortality is often viewed as a marker of a society’s development and Manitoba consistently falls to the bottom.

A report by the Manitoba Centre for Health Policy highlights that the province also has one of the highest rates of children being taken into care in the world. This alarming statistic should signal to all policy-makers and politicians that something different needs to be done.

Michael Moffatt

Michael Moffatt

Poverty, limited education, historical trauma and colonization – to name just a few factors – can be linked to Manitoba’s high rates of infant mortality and kids in care. And it all 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 the province’s children also puts Manitoba in economic jeopardy. Unless something is done to turn around the troublesome rates of infant mortality and the disturbing number of children taken into care each year, Manitoba will lag in economic productivity.

Fortunately, Manitoba is also producing some of the richest evidence on what could turn things around.

A study recently published in Pediatrics found that the province’s Healthy Baby Program, which gives low-income mothers an 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 study found that the province’s Families First Home Visiting Program – which offers support to families with children from pregnancy to school entry, at no cost to families – is associated with reductions in the number of children taken into care and hospitalized for injury due to maltreatment, and in improved overall health.

Both programs provide a glimpse of what is possible. But we can and must do better. These programs don’t reach all pregnant women and families in need in the province. They must be expanded to reach everyone in need.

Also, while these programs do much to support families living on the margins, they don’t address all of the numerous and complex challenges – like poverty, historical trauma and colonization – these families face. The new provincial and federal governments need to work together to implement programs that address such challenges. And they must enact the Calls to Action outlined in the Truth and Reconciliation Report.

We must ensure that all children have equal opportunity to healthy and successful lives.

We have the chance to make real changes to support children’s health. The provincial government can leave a lasting legacy by significantly reducing infant mortality to at least the Canadian average and drastically reducing the number of children taken into care.

By providing families with the right support, Manitoba can become a leader in child health outcomes.

It’s time Manitoba provided the supports that struggling families need to care for their children. The result would be a healthier workforce better able to compete in a global market.

The evidence shows how we can make a real difference – we just need to put that evidence to work.

Nathan Nickel is 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 Community Health Sciences and Paediatrics, and Child Health at the University of Manitoba.

Nathan and Michael are Troy Media contributors. Why aren’t you?

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