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Speeches

 

Supporting Early Years Development: A strategic business investment

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Charlie Coffey
Executive Vice-President
Government & Community Affairs
RBC Financial Group
Celebration of Local Rotary Club Healthy
Graydon Hall, North York
Wednesday, May 22, 2002

Thank you Lars…

I'm delighted to join you this evening for the first anniversary celebration of Local Rotary Club Healthy Beginnings Projects. And I'm equally delighted to share some business perspectives on a topic that's close to each of our hearts - supporting early years development.

It's clear that Healthy Beginnings is an outstanding organization of leaders and volunteers that's already pushing the envelope on the strategic investment of early childhood development - that's already leading the call to action. From Lars Henriksson, Chris Snyder, José Richter, Peter Wood, Jane Bertrand, Charlie Coles, Vern Heaslip, Pauline Hill, Pauline Petek, Brian Philcox and Peter Ross, to Vern Shute, Theresa Steadman. Jamie Toguri, Michael Cooksey, John Carr, Richard Clarke and Bill MacKay (not to mention all the Rotarian and non-Rotarian club members in this room), you bring a whole new meaning to the phrase "healthy beginnings". And no acknowledgment would be complete without the name John Bertram, as John's vision about the importance of the first years of a child's life, led to this millennium project for Rotary International District 7070, making this celebration possible. Together, you're an impressive group that's truly making a difference!

So, how do we all become more engaged in supporting the early years and convince others to do likewise? What's the connection between the early years and the business community? How can government at all levels, as well as the 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 - good business 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 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, Fraser Mustard, Margaret McCain and I assembled a group to look at how the private sector can become more involved in the Early Years challenge - a group that included individuals from the Canadian Federation of Independent Businesses, the Ontario Chamber of Commerce, the Canadian Auto Workers etc… What 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 could be structured to encourage matching non-government support.

As a parent and banker, I'm involved in supporting early years development because this is an economic issue that all levels of government need to address, through concrete action. I'm also involved because this is an economic issue that all businesses need to understand in order to take concrete action. There's the cost of doing nothing…and there's the cost of not doing enough.
And as Dr. Mustard says, if you want an idea of what your economy will look like in say 15 or 20 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.

As such, I continue to champion the Early Years, through Ontario's Promise: The Partnership for Children and Youth…and more recently via the Early Learning and Child Care Commission for the City of Toronto. The Honourable Margaret McCain and I were appointed co-chairs of this independent Commission last fall and on May 13th, our Final Report was released. As some of you may know, Jane Bertrand, who works closely with the McCain/Mustard team, among many other involvements, also provided support/guidance for the Report.

Among Commission findings, we discovered that early years development has been interpreted to mean 'ABC' - anything but childcare. Children learn from birth and the everyday aspects of life are their textbooks. A young child's development cannot take place without nurturing and care. Any attempt to separate development from care is therefore artificial. It's also counterproductive to separate the needs of children from their parents. How ironic that so much of the provincial Early Childhood Development Initiative (ECDI) allocations are targeted at compensating children for the inadequate care they receive. Canadians deserve and expect accountability for public investments. After all, the city of Toronto - cities across the country - are centres of human and capital development.

Although the media, especially the Toronto Star, covered elements of the Commission Report, I'd like to share a few recommendations tonight (perhaps you'll share your thoughts about them with me later):

1. The federal government must lead the way... creating a childcare partnership under the provisions of the Social Union Framework Agreement would provide additional support to the provinces and municipalities. Publicly committing to a renewed Early Childhood Development Initiative structured to produce measurable outcomes is another important step.

2. The provincial government should establish a legislative and funding framework to implement the main recommendation of the Early Years Study, i.e., use existing community capacity, resources and expertise to build a system of child development and parenting programs that simultaneously meets children's development needs and parents' needs for non-parental care and supports.

3. The province needs to develop policy mandates, targets and timetables as well as allow municipalities, the mandated managers and co-founders of children's services, to exercise their demonstrated expertise in this area.

4. The City of Toronto should make a commitment to expand the First Duty coalition, including the district school board and community partners; the City also needs to work more closely with Toronto First Nations to access federal funding for Aboriginal Head Start.

5. The private sector needs to recognize that early years development is a business issue (where the stakes are high) and a topic in the boardroom. Business can also use its clout to encourage/support government action. At the same time, the community at large must continue its role of advocacy. Increased funding is directly linked to program quality and reorganization.

When we invest in the early years - in young people - we're really investing in keeping our economy strong and competitive. That's the huge payoff. By investing in our children, we're investing in a strong and healthy Canada.
Clearly, a lack of investment in the early years can contribute to behavioural and learning problems. These are costs 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.

This is 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 relates to or can grasp.

Judging by the position paper drafted by the Rotary Club of Toronto in October 1999 ("The Payoffs of Prevention: Why Investing in Canada's children makes good economic sense for all of us"), I'm in large part preaching to the converted. However, if you want to know more 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 must support education and learning. We must support our young people - our future. There really is no option. We believe that our prosperity will depend on well-developed minds - intelligence, imagination, ingenuity and innovation.

As I said at the start, investing in children and youth simply makes sense. Any business can advance efforts to expand the body of knowledge in childhood development. As a society and as communities, the more we know about the impact of the first days, the first months, the first years on human development, the better off we are in directing our efforts to ensure healthy starts.

We must support partnerships that work towards these ends. I can't say enough about the value of partnerships among business, communities and government. When it comes to making a difference for children and youth, we all have a shared responsibility. Corporations, small/medium-sized businesses and yes, rotary clubs - play a very important role. For rotary clubs (especially in this district), this role is a natural fit to "lead, facilitate and mobilize community projects", like Healthy Beginnings

Partnerships - it's amazing what can happen when the private, public and voluntary sectors put their heads together…which reminds me of the Prime Minister's comment last year, as he quoted our newest honourary citizen and child advocate, Nelson Mandela: "a good head and a good heart are always a formidable combination." Partnerships encourage business to be catalysts for change - to show their heart. What a great way to build a civic/civil society and promote social development. The recently launched Healthy Beginnings Innovations Fund is a great example of partnerships at work.

It's time for business to "get it" and "get on with it" when it comes to the early years. 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. And that's not to say that governments aren't committed. We know that the federal government is committed to the tune of $2.2 billion over the next five years for new early childhood development investments, as part of the National Children's Agenda. We know that provincial and municipal governments are also committed in various ways and degrees. However, there's another piece of the total Canadian investment. Partnerships with the private sector are another essential piece.

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. And 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.

Let's talk about broadening family-friendly arrangements in the workplace. Job sharing, flex hours, and paid leave for family responsibilities are all ways that we help our people (many of whom are mothers with young children), meet their family responsibilities, including the nurturing of young babies…they're also elements of a sound business strategy.

Let's talk about how the private sector can provide on-line, over-the-phone or face-to face information resources for questions/concerns on family issues, such as child development, effective parenting skills, childcare arrangements, school selection and special services for children.

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 how members of the private sector can get more involved in the community - as Rotarians for instance…and let's talk about encouraging more corporate representation/support on the Canadian Child Care Federation, Canadian Coalition for the Rights of Children, Canadian Health Network, Child and Family Canada and National Children Alliances boards.

The momentum for the early years is catching more steam at home and around the globe. At a United Nations Special Session on May 9th, Microsoft chief executive Bill Gates and the CEOs of several other international corporations told UN and NGO (non-governmental organization) leaders that they want to work with them for the well being of the world's children. The private sector in Canada can also use its influence with governments and institutions, as well as promote good health practices - and work, in collaboration for the development/support of children.

Last October, I spoke at the annual Community Action Program for Children (CAPC)/Canada Prenatal Nutrition Program (CPNP) conference in Muskoka, where Health Canada sponsored projects like Healthy Babies, Healthy Children and Healthy Start were well represented by the province of Ontario and interests from coast to coast…where partnerships and sharing best practices were the focus of the conference - where the aboriginal voice was heard for the first time. As Jamie Toguri knows, Native Child and Family Services of Toronto is making a significant difference for aboriginal children and communities; and there's still much work that we can do in partnership with this organization and other aboriginal organizations.

And speaking of partnerships and best practices…all we had to do was link up with your new executive director Gayle Seddon and the Healthy Beginnings web site to learn more about rotary club successes and best practices. Whether it's Alliston's relationship with Rainbow Town for Young Children and their Families, Cobourg's "Northumberland & County Guide to Parenting in the Early Years - Traveling the Bumps and Curves of Being a New Parent, a Roadmap", Don Valley's connection with Campaign Against Child Poverty or Don Mills' association with the Toronto Academy of Dentistry, the bottom line is that Rotary Club best practices are almost always about partnerships - the bottom line is that the time is now to encourage increased corporate/community involvement with early years projects - and with Healthy Beginnings.

In closing, given the economic benefits down the road, early childhood development is very much a strategic initiative. At RBC Financial Group, we'll continue to make youth one of our priorities and give even greater focus to the early years. I'll continue to urge my colleagues in business to look for ways to partner with the public/voluntary sectors, and to speak out on early childhood development. (I can't tell you how many times I refer people to a certain Member of Parliament's comprehensive web site re the national children's agenda - yes, I'm referring to John Godfrey.)

I also urge all of you to remind business associates/colleagues about the strategic value of this early years investment - not once, but over and over again. Vern Heaslip and many of his colleagues here this evening have it right - progress starts at grass root levels - by taking small, incremental steps, by taking on small meaningful projects. Congratulations to all of you - and to all the participating rotary clubs for making this first year a success - tonight is a celebration of Healthy Beginnings and volunteers - your celebration!

The more we invest in our children - not in the abstract, but in the concrete - the more we're investing in the future. Healthy Beginnings (and Rotary International District 7070) is well represented by children's champions, as you put early years development on the top of your agendas. In the wake of an uncertain environment that continues to preoccupy the world, it's doubly important that we all champion our children and put early years development on the top of our agendas.

Thank you.

By the way, if you're interested in obtaining a copy of the Toronto Commission Report, I brought a few copies with me tonight.

 

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