House of Commons Speech on Canadian Childcare

Speaking notes for the Right Honourable Paul Martin P.C., M.P. | Ottawa, Ontario | May 4, 2006

Right Hon. Paul Martin (LaSalle—Émard, Lib.): Mr. Speaker, this is my first speech in the House since the last election.

First of all, I would like to thank the voters of LaSalle—Émard for placing their trust in me for the sixth consecutive time.

I rise today to discuss the importance of the Government of Canada honouring and building on the early learning and child care agreements signed with all 10 provinces over the course of the last year. Today the government is moving to implement a different plan, one that has at its core a theoretical payment of $1,200. There is a tactical elegance to this proposal. It is easy to understand. It is easy to remember. Furthermore, families need support, and I for one will not argue when it is provided.

However, the government claims that these cheques will provide tangible and fair assistance to families who need it. Furthermore, simply by distributing these cheques, the government says it will be giving Canadians a choice in child care. Again, the tactical elegance is who could possibly be against choice.

Therefore, in my remarks let me address not the government's political tactics, but on the basis of substance, the two important questions that we need to deal with. Is the government's plan truly fair? Does it provide real choice?

As the Caledon Institute of Social Policy predicted, and unfortunately it predicted correctly, “The new child care allowance will be a flawed scheme creating deep inequities”. For example, the Conservatives are going to cancel a young child supplement which goes to the most needy families. Why? They are going to do it to partially pay for the new benefits for better off families. They are doing this in the same budget that has actually increased income taxes for low income Canadians.

It is difficult to understand the perverse thinking that would take money out of the pockets of the working poor so that their better off brethren might benefit.

When we take a closer look at the proposed annual benefit, it boils down to a few dollars per day after taxes. That is fine if we wish to leave our child at the day care for 40 minutes per day and no longer.

For some families, especially low-income families, this benefit heralded by the government will be even smaller after taxes and clawbacks of other government benefits.

It amounts to a few dollars per day to help parents raise their children, whether they go to day care or remain at home. What choices do individuals have with these few dollars per day?

Giving parents a few dollars a day does not provide choice. It is not a child care strategy. It is not a child care solution. It does little to help those with children in care and it does nothing to help those who have trouble finding affordable quality care for their children.

Over the course of the last number of years, the federal government has pursued and implemented initiatives that were designed to make a real and positive difference in the lives of Canadian families.

We created the child tax benefit, over $10 billion a year in crucial income support to some three million families. We created the national child benefit. We created the young child supplement, so that families who need help most get it. We expanded maternity and parental leave benefits, so that mothers or fathers can spend up to a year at home with their babies. During the past two years, as the member for St. Paul's has said, we reached an agreement with every province to put in place a nationwide system of early learning and child care based on the principles of quality, accessibility, universality and development.

The member for York Centre and I travelled to provincial capitals to sign these agreements. Child care workers, families, volunteers, provincial premiers of all political parties, and ministers of all political stripes were there to welcome the birth of this program. Yet, the new federal Conservative government has attempted to characterize it as the state interfering in the parenting decisions of Canadian families.

This is not about and has never been about government telling Canadian parents how to raise their children. The government demonstrates an abysmal lack of understanding of how Canadians live today and the challenges that many families face when they make that allegation. Parents make their own decisions and what they have decided, out of necessity or out of choice, we ignore at the expense of the next generation.

At the present time, well over half of all Canadian children age five and under are in child care of some sort. Too often this occurs against virtually insurmountable odds, arising out of the difficulty in finding or affording quality care. When parents cannot find quality care, their children suffer and the family suffers.

A national child care program, in which all governments cooperate, is the nation standing behind the choice that more and more families have already made. Handing over a couple of dollars a day to Canadian families is not going to give them the ability to afford quality care, nor is a grant to build new spaces without recognizing the ongoing costs of operating those spaces anything more than a political patch for a deeply human need.

In short, the government speaks of providing choice, but it is a false choice that it is offering Canadians. It is a false choice it is offering families in need. Whereas, the national program that was signed last year by the federal government and all of the provinces provides the foundation for that choice.

So far in the national debate that is underway, concern has been focused primarily on the need to create new spaces, but as the member for St. Paul's said earlier, there is another aspect to the debate that is every bit as important. It is an aspect that in my belief has been insufficiently touched upon since the election. It is the need for early learning, the recognition of the importance to be paid to a child's development in the crucial years of zero to six.

As Dr. Fraser Mustard and the Hon. Margaret McCain said in their study entitled “The Early Years”:

“We consider, in view of this evidence, that the period of early child development is equal to or, in some cases, greater in importance for the quality of the next generation than the periods children and youth spend in education or postsecondary education.”

I would hope that the recognition of the importance of early learning in terms of its unique benefit to the child as a person would be enough to carry the debate, but in case it is not, let us look at a harder equation, one which might appeal to the government.

The Governor of the Bank of Canada has said that early learning is the single most important investment a society can make in its own future. James Heckman, the Nobel laureate economist, put it as follows:

“We cannot afford to postpone investing in children until they become adults, nor can we wait until they reach school age–a time when it may be too late to intervene.”

He went on to say:

“Since learning is a dynamic process, it is most effective when it begins at a young age and continues through adulthood”

Finally, a recent study from the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis in the United States, hardly the hotbed of left-wing social engineering, concluded that early childhood development should be at the top of a government's priorities, that such investments in children yield high public and private returns in terms of better schools, better workers and reduced crime. In short, learning begets learning; and skill begets skill. What greater gift can we give to our children?

The agreements that the Liberal government put in place with the provinces are not just about child care. They are about better care, with a real emphasis on development. The focus is not only on creating spaces, but on creating opportunity to providing a real head start for Canadian children.

We live in a country that, like many in the industrial world, is facing the challenges of an aging population. We have fewer young people supporting more older people. It is therefore more crucial than ever that the children of today and tomorrow are afforded the best opportunities, are given every advantage, and every possible chance to succeed.

This is true for the children of all Canadians. It is one of the most powerful economic arguments for the higher social principle of equality of opportunity. An argument that is made all the more powerful when one considers the needs of aboriginal Canadians who represent the youngest segment of our population and the needs of new Canadians who represent the fastest growing segment of our workforce.

The simple fact is that if we want to ensure that the children of all Canadians are given a head start in a world of ever increasing global competition, then we had better understand that what the current debate is really all about is how we provide all our children with the opportunity for early learning, not just a select few. Unfortunately, the government is walking away from a system that would do just that.

The presidents of a number of school boards and teachers federations said after the budget that “By failing to uphold the federal-provincial child care agreements, the Prime Minister and his government have chosen to forego a once in a generation opportunity to give our children the kind of start that assures their readiness to succeed in school and in life”.

The research is overwhelming, consistent and irrefutable, that children's readiness to learn at the start of grade one is the single greatest predictor of how they will do in school in every grade, whether they will graduate successfully, what their earning potential will be, how positive their contribution to society will be, and how healthy they will be. Every child deserves the best possible start in life.

Our social policy depicts our country as we would like it to be. This policy bears witness to a profound conviction: we feel that Canada's success depends on our common belief that we must not leave anyone behind.

Together we are stronger than any one individual on our side, and over the years it is this belief that has been the basis for so many Canadian success stories.

Today, we must act on this belief once again so that the requisite resources are made available to continue building a national day care system, a system adapted to the individual needs of the provinces and one that respects their areas of jurisdiction.

Over the last decade, we have accomplished remarkable things in Canada. We have eliminated the deficit. We have reduced our debt by over $60 billion. We have surpassed all other G-7 countries in terms of economic growth, employment and standard of living.

In the last decade, Canada's achievements have put us at the forefront of the world's evolution. We must not become complacent. Every day we are confronted by new challenges. We will meet these challenges only if we support Canadian families by building this generation's legacy to the next, a national program of early learning and child care so that Canadian children, regardless of income, can enter school ready to learn and succeed.

For years, we as a nation struggled to live within our means. We fought to curb the chronic deficits that ran up the national debt and hampered us from investing in the things that mattered most. But we did the hard work of eliminating the deficit. We did the hard work of putting in place the foundation for a nationwide system of early learning and child care, the first new social program in a generation and one that we must continue to build on.

What we have gained must not be lost. I ask indeed, by what intellectual rigidity does the government now tell us that child care is not a priority and that early learning is not a worthwhile goal? Today, we have the means to prepare Canada to succeed and our children to succeed. We have the opportunity to invest in our shared future. To achieve these goals we have to come together. We must recognize where lies the common good and that is the role of the federal government.

For sure, let the new government build on, let the new government improve on, that which has been achieved, but let it not seek to destroy that which has already been set in place with the provinces.

The role of government is not simply to govern for today. It must govern as well for tomorrow. That is what our first action on taking office was, to eliminate the deficit. That is why when we eliminated the deficit, our first budget was to bring in the education budget, and it is why the national child care and early learning program is so important. This is an approach that has produced the best country and one of the strongest economies in the world. We must not abandon that now.

The early learning and child care debate is not a debate only about the families of today. It is about the Canada of tomorrow. The choice that we make on child care and early learning will speak to the kind of society we want to have. The federal government has a duty to contribute to a culture of learning that goes to the heart of when learning begins, and to ensure that each child will get a better start, a better chance of thriving in the later years of school and in life. It is the right thing to do for children. It is the right thing to do for Canada.

Thank you