Open Letter to the Rt. Hon. Paul Martin,
Prime Minister of Canada
November 10, 2004
Dear Prime Minister,
I am writing this letter on an issue that is critical for the future of our country.
There are more than two million children under the age of six in this country. I'm sure you agree that they deserve the best developmental learning opportunities and quality care that Canada can offer. Not only because they are our future workforce and the next generation of leaders, thinkers and innovators, but also because they, too, are citizens.
We are among the wealthiest nations on earth. Yet as a recent OECD study found, we have an inadequate, fragmented and underfunded patchwork of early learning and child care services which compares extremely unfavourably to many other developed nations.
With the exception of Quebec – which has forged ahead with building a universal, affordable system – and pockets of excellence elsewhere, this country has failed to deliver what we owe to our youngest citizens.
We have left it to their parents to cobble together whatever arrangements they can make, for whatever amount they can afford. And what they get often amounts to little more than babysitting, yet what they pay can consume upwards of 20% of their household income.
Prime Minister, you have pledged to set Canada on a new course. You have made a commitment to create a national system of early learning and child care. We applaud your leadership. At long last, after 20 years of promises made and repeatedly broken, early learning and child care is on the front burner of federal-provincial/territorial relations.
Now the challenge is to get it right.
Last week, the Ministers of social development across Canada agreed in principle that there should be a quality system that is universal and inclusive, developmental and accessible. According to the Minister of Social Development Canada, the Hon. Ken Dryden, there will be strong accountability, measurable goals, and provincial-territorial flexibility.
That's a positive start, as is your government's intention to invest $5 billion over five years. But there is much work to do, and much more investment required, if we are to build a real system from the jumble of services we have today.
This week, more than 600 policy-makers, activists, frontline workers and researchers are gathering in Winnipeg at a national conference organized by the Canadian Council on Social Development (CCSD). This conference will showcase the latest knowledge, research, policy issues and best practices on early learning and child care. We are honoured that Minister Dryden amd the Premier of Manitoba, Gary Doer, will address the conference.
This is the first major national child care policy conference in over 20 years. Participants at the podium, in the workshops, and on the conference floor have a wealth of evidence and experience to share. We encourage you and your government to study the evidence and listen to this experience. It points clearly to a publicly financed system – available to and affordable by all families (like Quebec's $7-a-day system) – as the way forward.
The evidence is clear, for example, that:
- The early years from birth to age six set the foundation for lifelong learning, behaviour and health.
- All children benefit from quality early learning and child care, not just targeted groups of children, and all parents can use information and support to help them raise healthy, well-adjusted and resilient human beings.
- This early period of life represents an opportunity to develop Canada's human capital for the future. Quality early learning and child care helps children succeed in school.
- The social and economic benefits of developing a publicly financed system exceed the costs of investment by a margin of at least two to one.
- Quality programming depends on a number of factors, but the heart of the matter is the child care workforce, how they are trained and compensated, how they are treated, how many kids they are responsible for, and what resources they are given to work with, in what kinds of settings.
There are many issues to be resolved as Canada develops a national system. Conference participants will be discussing, for example, how best to:
- ensure that children with disabilities and other children with special needs are included in and benefit from early learning and child care programs;
- bridge the divide between the formal education system and early learning and child care programs; and
- serve families with diverse needs, such as those living in rural and remote communities, parents who work non-standard hours, and Aboriginal communities.
As host of this landmark event, the CCSD believes the Ministers of social development, who are meeting again in January, should have the benefit of learning about what was discussed at this conference. We would welcome a meeting to communicate the conclusions and concerns voiced by the people meeting in Winnipeg who have a wealth of knowledge and are passionate about the future of early learning and child care in Canada.
Prime Minister, one of the things you asked Canadians to consider in the last election campaign was what kind of Canada they wanted.
At the CCSD, we too have been encouraging debate on the kind of Canada that will emerge in the coming decade. We believe it is time to renew the social development agenda, which has languished recently in the shadow of health care and deficit/debt reduction.
We do not minimize concerns over waiting lists for hip replacements, but there are waiting lists for child care, too. A key component of a new social development agenda is to bring Canada's approach to early learning and child care into the 21st Century. And for that to happen, the new system must be built on a solid policy and financial foundation.
Yes, we will have to work around the patchwork that we have now. But we must not base the new system on the failings of the old. Certainly, there must be flexibility for provincial/territorial governments. But the system must support the best, not accommodate the worst. Finally, Canadians must be assured that we are building a system that works well and is affordable, both for parents and taxpayers.
The next time the OECD studies Canada, let them see a world-leading jurisdiction in early learning and child care!