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Supporting Early Years Development: A strategic business investment

Charlie Coffey
Executive Vice President
Government & Community Affairs
RBC Financial Group
"Community Champions for Kids" Breakfast
The Cutten Club
Guelph, Ontario
Tuesday, February 12, 2002


Thank you David...and good morning!

I was especially pleased to receive an invitation from the Early Years Steering Committee in the Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph region to participate in this breakfast - and equally pleased to visit "The Royal City" once again. Given a career with one bank, you won't be surprised with my affinity to Guelph's place name. Since the city is a vibrant, entrepreneurial, technology-driven community, strongly committed to the future, not to mention celebrating its 175th anniversary this year, it's a special treat to join you today and to share some business perspectives on a topic that is close to my heart - supporting early years development.

As I look around the room, you're a near perfect audience for a discussion about the strategic investment in early childhood development. That's because I'm speaking to a group of leaders who will push the envelope on this investment - who will spread the word in the community - who will continue to lead the call to action. From David Huson and Ashley Knight-Kron, to Kim Warner of the County of Wellington, Dave Worthen of Connect Tech, Mike Annable of Linamar, Debbie Bowie of The Co-operators, Ken Hamill of the Guelph Community Foundation and Barbara McKee of the Wellington Early Learning Centre, plus members of the Early Years Steering Committee and the Children's Foundation (I wish there was time to name everyone here), you're a high profile group that can make a difference and in many cases, is already doing just that. And special thanks to your Community Coordinator, Alayne Langerak, who helped me learn more about the early stages of this Project.

So yes, the near perfect audience... Now the question becomes, how do we all become more engaged? How can we convince the business world to become truly engaged? How can the public, private and voluntary sectors work together more effectively?

Thinking about the scope of the early years agenda brings to mind a story about Angelo Patri, an expert on child behaviour. One day, he looked out of his window and saw three children walking on a wet cement sidewalk. He became angry, and was going to chase them off, when his wife said: "But Angelo, you love children." "Yes," he replied, "I love them in the abstract, but not in the concrete".

That's like the challenge we face when discussing the early years. In the abstract, who can argue against the need to give our children a great start - intellectually, emotionally and socially? Ensuring that kids - our own kids - receive positive early influences simply makes good sense. But we need more than words - we need concrete action.

Let me start by telling you about my personal involvement in supporting early years, also referred to as, 0-6, development. A few years ago, I served on the Ontario Government's Early Years Study. We looked at ways to prepare children for scholastic, career and social success - from all socio-economic groups, not just at-risk youth or those with special needs. The study co-chairs were the Honourable Margaret McCain and Dr. Fraser Mustard.

After the McCain-Mustard study, Dr. Mustard and I assembled a group to look further at how the private sector can become involved in the early years challenge. This included groups like the Canadian Federation of Independent Businesses, the Ontario Chamber of Commerce, the Canadian Auto Workers, and several other businesses.

This was a tremendous consciousness-raising session. People willingly volunteered to look at tough issues - the possible need for tax reform, incentives to build child care facilities...the need to develop broader-based community networks...and how the provincial government's Early Years Challenge Fund can be structured to encourage matching non-government support.

I continue to champion the early years, through Ontario's Promise: The Partnership for Children and Youth...rather than steal Karen Chan's thunder, who's up next, I won't say another word about this initiative at the moment. Recently, my involvement has been through the Early Learning and Child Care Commission for the City of Toronto. The Honourable Margaret McCain and I were appointed co-chairs of this new Commission last October. I must tell you that we're energized about raising the profile of Toronto and other cities as centres of human and economic development, proud to be supporting the need for increased funding to early learning/care services and determined to help advance national/provincial policy and action on the early years/children's agenda. We've met and consulted with over 100 federal, provincial and municipal officials, business and community organizations as well as addressed the federal government's National Children's Agenda Caucus Committee and a Sub-Committee on Children and Youth at Risk. Our report, to be published in March, will contain recommendations for all three levels of government and the community. It will hopefully be beneficial to communities at large as well. That's my background.

We've all heard much about the "brain drain" - about how corporate Canada is concerned with the exodus of many talented professionals. In my mind, it's time for all of us, especially the private sector to think about another kind of brain drain.

The report of the Ontario Government's Early Years Study, released in 1999, was called "Reversing the Real Brain Drain". What did we mean? It's clear that society bears a great cost if it fails to provide our young people with the learning and development needed to succeed - not just at work, in life. We all know that learning is shaped by early childhood experiences. Because of the great work in studying and publicizing the links between early childhood education and subsequent success, the business community is much better informed about the early years challenge, or should I say early years opportunity, than ever before.

Clearly, a lack of investment in the early years can contribute to behavioural and learning problems. Dysfunctional relationships. Academic failure. And all of the associated problems... juvenile delinquency and criminal behaviour...teen pregnancy...substance abuse...chronic unemployment...poverty...health risks.

All of these can be related to conditions set in the early years of life.All are costs that we share as a society. Research from the Child Care Education Foundation, says that today, it costs Canada $2.5 billion every year for remedial education because of delayed interventions or negative early experiences. Work-family conflicts cost businesses another $4.7 billion a year.

That's the kind of language that business understands. It says that we all bear a burden for failing to provide the "right start" to our children. We bear it not only as parents but also as taxpayers and as businesspeople.

Quite frankly, I don't hear enough of my corporate colleagues talking about their support of early childhood development. Perhaps more would, if we framed this discussion in a language that the business community can relate to.

As Dr. Mustard says, if you want an idea of what your economy will look like in say 20 or 30 years...if you want an economy that's vibrant, citizens who are productive and not a drain on taxes - think about the investment you're making in very young people today. And if you want to know about return on investment, consider this. Research also shows that for every dollar spent on quality early education services, two dollars comes back through increased tax revenues, and decreased social, education and health costs.

So what are some of the tangible steps business can take? First, it starts with having a point of view on early years development.

At RBC Financial Group, the underlying goal of all our corporate citizenship programs is prosperity for Canada and her people. To achieve this, we simply must support education and learning. We must support our young people - our future. There really is no option. We believe wholeheartedly that ongoing prosperity depends on well-developed minds - intelligence, imagination, ingenuity and innovation.

That's the payoff. When we invest in our young people - in the early years - we're really investing in keeping our economy strong and competitive. By investing in our children, we're investing in a strong and healthy Canada. Investing in youth simply makes sense.

Any business can encourage efforts to expand the body of knowledge in childhood development. The more we know about the impact of the first days, the first months, the first years on human development, the better we are as a society to encourage efforts to ensure healthy starts.

RBC wholeheartedly supports groups like the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research. Over the past 13 years, a large part of our funding to the CIAR, some $2.5 million, has been aimed at research into early childhood development - that's how important we think research is.

Corporations can also support policy development. For example, we fund the Canadian Institute of Child Health. It's done key work in encouraging government to create the right policies for childhood development, and creating material to help parents give their kids the best start.

And we must support partnerships that work towards these ends. I can't say enough about the value of partnerships between business, community groups and government. I firmly believe that when it comes to making a difference for our youth, we all have a shared responsibility, and corporations can play an important role.

Partnerships - it's amazing what can happen when the private, public and voluntary sectors put their heads together...when a business can be a catalyst for change. What a great way to build a civic and civil society, plus promote social development. Everybody wins!

We must do the same with the early years challenge. We can't say that investing in children is the domain of the public sector. For one, governments don't have the resources to do it all.

That's not to say that governments aren't committed. In the fall of 2000, the federal government announced new investments of $2.2 billion over five years for early childhood development, as part of the National Children's Agenda. And this provincial government is also committed. A few months ago, the third phase of the Harris government's Early Years Plan was announced for 2002 - the locations of the first 41 Ontario Early Years Centres in 15 communities across Ontario, with an additional 62 Centres to open in 2003.

However, that's why partnerships involving the private sector are so essential. Corporations are part of the community. And the best solutions are community-based. When it comes to the early years, let's open our minds and talk about all sorts of possibilities.

Let's talk about how companies can create early child development and parenting centres for their employees and receive a tax credit for opening them up to the community. Let's talk about ways to ensure that all families have access to child development and parenting programs.

Let's talk about child-care centres that are supported by employers. These can be either on-site or near site, in a local school or community centre. Not only do the best centres offer kids great support, their convenience alleviates the stress of the company's employees. A number of major Canadian organizations, from CN to Ontario Hydro, offer this option.

Let's talk about broadening family-friendly arrangements in the workplace. Here's our approach at RBC Royal Bank. A family friendly program doesn't just mean maternity or parental leave - which, in our case, has always exceeded the minimum - but a host of other policies. Job-sharing, flex hours, and paid leave for family responsibilities are all ways that we help our people meet their personal needs, including the nurturing of young babies. We have more staff in job sharing arrangements than any employer in Canada (about 1,000 people). Many are mothers with young children. We know that helping employees deal with the challenges of the early years, through family friendly programs, is a sound business strategy. We also take pride in knowing that our programs help attract and retain employees across the country.

Let's talk about how the private sector can serve as a resource for questions/concerns on family issues. For example, at RBC, our staff can access professional consultants who provide information and referrals regarding various work/life issues. This includes support with: child development, effective parenting skills, childcare arrangements, school selection, and special services for children. This information is available over the phone, online, or face-to-face.

Let's talk about private sector advocacy for financing of early child development initiatives. We need to make the link between the financial well-being of corporations, shareholder value, and the need to invest in the early years.

Let's talk about corporate and government support for social entrepreneurs. Like other entrepreneurs, they act as intermediaries between capital and labour - in this case to create social institutions and instruments to build our child development capacity.

And there are several ways to track or measure genuine progress - one is the degree to which we devote resources and time to our children's social, emotional and intellectual development.

Now let's take a quick look at what's happening in this Region.

Although the Early Years Steering Committee was just announced in September 2001, the momentum is impressive. Whether it's fund-raising/marketing plans, community information forums and parent surveys throughout the Region, or development work with the Early Years Challenge Fund and partnerships with the Centre for Research and Education in Human Resources as well as the Upper Grand District School Board, it's clear that your Early Years strategy, Community Inventory and implementation of the Early Development Instrument (starting this afternoon I believe) is nothing less than leadership in action. I also understand that further partnerships with other networks and Projects, will result in a solid base of Early Years data (available on an interactive web-based mapping system), for future community programs and evaluation.

And there's no doubt that partnering with the YMCA-YWCA of Guelph, Family and Children's Services of Guelph and Wellington County, the Action Read Community Literacy Centre, the Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph Health Unit, the United Way of Guelph/Wellington and many other agencies/associations, is another leadership in action model of mobilizing resources to support the health and well-being of our children.

Speaking of partnerships and working together, one can't help but be impressed with the teaming up of the Early Years Steering Committee and the Children's Foundation of Guelph and Wellington. It's gratifying to see that by hosting events such as this Breakfast, you're generating increased interest in the Project and helping to promote the need for ongoing commitments of dollars to the community contribution requirement of the Challenge Fund.

In closing, early childhood development shouldn't be a controversial notion. Given the economic benefits down the road, it's very much a strategic initiative. It's in the national interest to do more. It's in the business interest too. At RBC Financial Group, we'll continue to make youth one of our priorities and give even greater focus to the early years.

I urge my colleagues in business to look for ways to partner with the public and voluntary sectors and to speak out on the importance of early childhood development. I also urge Dan Cremasco of BDO Dunwoody, Doug MacMillan of Barrow Communications, Suzanne McKloskey of Adecco, Marilyn Benson of the Credit Union and Paul Aquilina of Petrona Associates to help the private sector see the light. Make yourselves visible at events that include the business community, to do your networking and lobbying. Remind people in the private sector of the strategic importance of this issue - not once, but over and over again.

The more we all invest in our children - not in the abstract, but in the concrete - the better off we are as a society. It's a marvelous feeling to be among dedicated champions of early years initiatives this morning - people like Ron Asselstine of Guelph's Wish Fund for Children and Dr. Nancy MacDonald of the McNeil Consumer Health Centre - and everyone in this room. So let's act. Let's make sure that all of us - whether part of the government or community groups, social agencies, or the corporate community - put the children's agenda on our agendas.

Thank you.


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