In 2020, the University of Calgary became the first university in Canada to make child health and wellness an institution-wide research priority. The One Child Every Child initiative brings together numerous researchers from diverse disciplines, organizations and countries to examine the biological and social determinants of health affecting the wellbeing of children — especially those from equity-deserving groups — from conception to adulthood.
“For me, research is care and care has to be researched,” said Susa Benseler, the director of UCalgary’s Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute (ACHRI), whose more than 350 investigators study paediatric illnesses in labs, clinics and community settings. “There are so many areas where change is urgently needed.”
With $125 million in funding over seven years from the Canada First Research Excellence Fund, the initiative will support studies within three broad themes: pregnant women, babies and preschoolers; chronic and complex illnesses; and mental health and neurodevelopmental conditions. To disrupt systemic inequities, the researchers will consider how the intersections of race, gender and socioeconomic status affect health outcomes. The initiative includes several government and health sector partners, as well as three other Alberta universities: the University of Alberta, the University of Lethbridge and Athabasca University.
“There’s a much lower proportion of federal dollars that go into children’s health research…compared to adult health…It’s also more expensive to conduct… [due to] specialized equipment, specialized staff,” said Sandra Davidge, the executive director of the Women and Children’s Health Research Institute at the U of A. She noted that only one of the 11 Canadian Institutes of Health — the Human Development, Child and Youth Health Institute — focuses on children’s health issues. “It’s about thinking long term — healthy children means healthy populations.”
In keeping with One Child Every Child’s holistic approach to child health research, the U of L will also examine developments related to children experiencing anxiety, depression or other forms of mental distress — an issue that was magnified and exacerbated by the pandemic. The university will make headway in this area through the involvement of its large neurosciences, mental health and addiction research cluster.
“There is no such thing as good physical health if you don’t have good emotional mental and spiritual health,” U of L’s vice-president, research Dena McMartin said.
Andrew Perrin, associate vice-president of research at Athabasca, said keeping children healthy includes creating more opportunities for them to participate in purpose-built innovative educational experiences. He explained that the need to modernize education delivery became painfully clear during the COVID-19 pandemic, as teachers scrambled to figure out how to engage their students online.
“All forms of education in the future will have some sort of digital component. The opportunity we have now is to understand and reflect on what worked and what didn’t work well in the crisis response teaching experience of COVID.”
Some Athabasca researchers will explore evidence-based strategies, tactics and technologies to create meaningful online learning experiences. Dr. Perrin said the insights generated could be particularly impactful for many children encapsulated in theme three — those who learn differently due to neurodevelopmental conditions such as autism.
Equity, diversity and inclusion action plan
One Child Every Child has a robust equity, diversity and inclusion action plan in place to advance health equity amongst Indigenous, Black and other marginalized children and youth who tend to experience disproportionally poorer health outcomes as a result of racial discrimination and poverty. U of C medicine professor Bukola Salami, who helped develop the plan, said part of the focus will be on disaggregating health data based on race in order to better understand the impediments to health among BIPOC youth.
The action plan also prioritizes Indigenous self-determination, which, together with a “parallel path” in which Indigenous communities will establish their own research objectives and use their own knowledge-gathering methods, could help some of the most vulnerable members of our society.
“We know that Indigenous peoples are generally not receiving services, not being attended to in the ways that the rest of Canadians are…We face more concerns regarding our health and well-being, whether it’s tied to youth suicide or matters of diabetes that’s impacting our children and youth,” said Michael Hart, a citizen of Fisher River Cree Nation and U of C’s vice-provost of Indigenous engagement. “So that means there’s going to be research that’s primarily focused by Indigenous scholars relating and connected to Indigenous communities…paying attention to Indigenous aspirations, goals and ideas that address Indigenous health.”