Federal-provincial co-operation a must in childcare.
Canada is the weakest investor in early learning and childcare among wealthy countries and, not surprisingly, we rate last in meeting early childhood development objectives. However, this state of affairs may be dramatically altered by the $30 billion dollar investment in high-quality childcare announced in the federal budget last month.
Early learning and childcare are key in determining the future of our children. Early childhood development directly affects children’s health and their health as adults. It charts the life course affecting education, employment, income, lifestyle and status in society. High-quality early learning opportunities can lift children out of poverty and make societies more equal.
Studies on very low-income American infants attending early learning and childcare programs show that these children commit fewer juvenile crimes, complete high school at higher rates, and earn more as adults than those children not able to attend such programs.
Poor children benefit more, but all children, regardless of class, benefit from early childhood education. Swedish children who attended publicly funded childcare centres have better performance in school and are better socially and emotionally adjusted than those who did not, irrespective of family income.
Almost all European countries have publicly funded universal childcare systems. But in Canada, we have a patchwork of private operators providing childcare from the for-profit, not for-profit and informal sectors. Only 17 per cent of Canadian families have access to government regulated childcare space. Most children are cared for in unregulated spaces where their health and safety cannot be guaranteed and the quality, or even existence, of developmental programming is unknown.
To benefit from early learning and childcare, children need to receive high-quality services. They need to have an adequate number of trained adults supervising them in a well-designed physical environment. They need to be challenged by enjoyable, play-based learning activities.
And those taking care of them need to have decent working conditions and wages commensurate with the importance of the work they do. Taken together, these conditions need public funding and oversight, because they are seldom met in for-profit or informal childcare settings.
While directly benefiting children, early learning and childcare programs also provide much needed support for parents. They allow parents, especially mothers, to participate in education, training and employment. They also provide caregivers with parenting support, social support and referrals to community resources at a time when they are struggling to balance work and family.
Childcare programs strengthen communities by bringing together children and families from different backgrounds and foster inclusion and respect for diversity. Social cohesion is enhanced as parents from all walks of life come together for a common goal. The broader community also benefits by decreased crime rates, fewer high school dropouts, and increased contributions to economic, cultural and social productivity.
Everyone, no matter their political stripe, can agree that investing in children is worthwhile for both their inherent value and for the prosperity of our country. Yet, it has been over 50 years since the Royal Commission on the Status of Women first recommended a national childcare program.
We must make sure that the current federal proposal will be successful in meeting the needs of children, families and communities. We must demand co-operation between provincial and federal leaders to make sure that no child or family gets left behind.
In Alberta, the UCP’s response to the federal announcement of national childcare funding has been less than enthusiastic. Premier Jason Kenney has said that not-for-profit centres to be funded by the federal program will not serve the needs of some Alberta families, including those who live in rural and Indigenous communities and those who stop working to care for their children.
We cannot leave this money on the table to the detriment of our families. The federal funding will go a long way in creating childcare centres in rural areas and on Indigenous reserves where such services may not have been viable in the past. Low-cost childcare will allow children whose parents chose to stay at home to care for them to still take advantage of learning opportunities offered by childcare centres even on a part-time basis.
The UCP government says there isn’t enough choice for parents in the federally proposed program. We must let our provincial leaders know that Albertan families want to have the choice of low-cost, high-quality early learning and childcare. According to the United Nations, quality early childhood education is not a choice, it is a human right.
Vamini Selvanandan is a family physician and public health practitioner in Alberta. Visit www.engagedcitizen.ca for more articles.