Just in time for Father’s Day, we wanted to feature a new group in our Family Treatment Program (FTP). The group is a safe space where fathers can learn and heal with other dads.

FTP aims to improve family safety, family functioning, and child well-being so families can remain together. Families have a therapist assigned to them and a team of treatment workers. There are also individualized groups that provide additional treatment for families.

Donna Balkwill

There are several different groups offered to parents weekly and that list continues to grow. The new dads’ group was created by Donna Balkwill, a family preservation therapist.

“The group is a moving and evolving thing that meets the dads where they are at. It is really about them,” Donna said.

Donna based her idea for the group on research she had done while receiving her master’s degree last year. The research focused on understanding the unique needs of young dads and how they are connected to the wellbeing of their children and families. She also reviewed the curriculum of the 24:7 Dad group, which was introduced to the FTP in 2014.

She said that social issues have changed since the earlier group was created and felt it was time to revise the group.

“I didn’t want it to be a psycho-education group. I think our parents are given lots of good information, but they need a space to process rather than continue to receive information,” she said. “I also asked the therapists working with the dads to find out what they wanted in a group.”

The group is an Indigenous-focused group and co-led by the dads. They can talk about the difficult parts of parenting, single parenting, or navigating separate co-parenting.

The dads identified a need to smudge before sessions began, be outside whenever possible, use storytelling, and incorporate practices on the land.

While the group is currently made up of dads who are Indigenous, it’s open to everyone.

“The dads do a beautiful job storytelling and responding to each other and they have created the most beautiful safe space for each other to share without judgment,” Donna said.

Storytelling is a common Indigenous way of teaching and learning. It was an important structure to the group.

“When you think of First Nations families, so many have gone through life without being heard,” Donna said. “They have met with people who have had the best intentions to support them but families don’t often get to actually share and be heard.”

The importance of having a safe space for fathers to share and develop skills cannot be understated but is often overlooked.

“When speaking of First Nations dads we have to consider the colonial history element that effectively dismantled the Indigenous family structure. Looking at residential school history and the ‘60s scoop, parents never had the opportunity to parent and children never had the opportunity to be parented by their families,” Donna explained.

“Many First Nations dads are faced with stigma. By way of all these things, when we have professional support in place that assesses risk and ensures the safety of families, oftentimes dads are looked at to how much risk they pose to their families versus what assets they have that can bring to strengthen their families.”

She said when dads can be safely and actively involved in their children’s lives, children's development is greatly improved.

The response to the group has been positive. Participants have expressed that what they are learning in the program and from each other, is helping to keep their families safer.

With COVID-19 numbers decreasing, the group can now meet in person and incorporate more of the land-based exercises, including an upcoming fishing trip.

Donna is considering expanding the group past its original storytelling themes and possibly expanding into the community in the future.

She added from a personal point of view, “It is my absolute favourite part of the week. The dads are so funny, they are so engaging and it is a really powerful group of men.”