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Speeches

 

Building future prosperity: Investing in the right start for children

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Charlie Coffey
Executive Vice President
Government & Community Affairs
RBC Financial Group
Adventure Place AGM
McDonald's Restaurants of Canada Limited
Toronto, Ontario

Tuesday, November 5, 2002

Fraser, thank you very much for the warm introduction…

I'm delighted to join the Adventure Place family today - to share some thoughts about building future prosperity: investing in the right start for children. Three weeks ago, I co-presented a workshop at the Family Resource Programs (FRP) Canada National Biennial Conference in Mississauga. The objective of our session was to help delegates develop a better business case for family support programs - to help raise the volume and the bar when it comes to building family support partnerships, particularly with business leaders and elected officials.

My closing comments (just before we opened the floor to a Q/A), went like this, "As Dr. Fraser 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 a workplace that's innovative - think about the investment you're making in very young people today. At the start, I shared with you the business case for my involvement in supporting early years initiatives and family support partnerships. However, there's more to the story…since in large part, I'm here today because of Fraser Mustard, what does this tell you about building and selling the business case?"

This last question resonated with the delegates as getting the ear of business leaders on the topic of early childhood development, is no easy feat. They came to understand that if Fraser Mustard was my wake-up call to action, he must have pushed the right buttons. And if knowing what buttons to push - how to sell the case (and it's somewhat different every time) - is a key element to success, then working smarter to make and deliver the business case is a high priority. So how did Fraser get to me? Ask Fraser, as only he knows for sure. In the meantime, I'll tell you my "why is this banker involved?" story - the short version.

I'm involved in supporting early years development because it's an economic investment that requires more federal, provincial and municipal government action. RBC has a vested interest in this issue and can help influence government policy and public opinion. The development of human capital at an early age is key to a successful economy.

I'm involved because it's an economic investment that needs corporate/business action. As a business leader, I have a responsibility to push the envelope on high priority issues - and what's more important than children? Businesses "should strive to be family and child-friendly employers; to provide enriched child care that connects to elementary schools where appropriate; to have policies that are sensitive to the involvement of employees in the education of their children; and to be bold and creative regarding the importance of parental leave for new parents."

And I'm also involved because it's an economic investment that requires more community action - kids are everybody's business. Integrated early years programming is one of the best investments that communities can make. As a children's advocate (and parent), the only way to make a difference is to get involved and get others involved! There's the cost of doing nothing…and there's the cost of not doing enough.

From the Ontario Government's Early Years Study and the post-Study group that looked at how the private sector could become more involved in the early years challenge, to Ontario's Promise and the Commission on Early Learning and Child Care for the City of Toronto, two names are an intrinsic part of my initial connection/ongoing commitment: The Honourable Margaret McCain and Fraser Mustard. I thought of them, other champions and Canada's children while listening to Governor-General Adrienne Clarkson read the Speech from the Throne on September 30th, especially the following:

"Five years ago, Canada's governments launched the National Children's Agenda, engaging Canadians in every part of the country on how to ensure that all Canadian children have a good start in life; that families with children have the tools they need to provide care and nurturing…the government will work with its partners to increase access to early learning opportunities and to quality child care, particularly for poor and lone-parent families."

Madame Clarkson went on to say: "The government will take additional measures to address the gap in life chances between aboriginal/non-aboriginal children. It will put in place early childhood development programs for First Nations, expand Aboriginal Head Start, improve parental supports and provide aboriginal communities with the tools to address fetal alcohol syndrome and its effects."

So when The Honourable Ethel Blondin-Andrew, Secretary of State (Children and Youth) announced a "funding allocation of $320 million over the next five years for a strategy to improve and expand Early Childhood Development (ECD) programs/services for First Nations and other aboriginal children" last Thursday (on a day for children - Halloween), it was apparent this action plan picked up on the Speech from the Throne commitment and recommendations of the Sub-committee on Children/Youth at Risk (chaired by John Godfrey) - the June 2002 Building on Success Report. It was also reassuring to note that Ministers Anne McLellan (Health), Jane Stewart (Human Resources Development Canada) and Bob Nault (Indian Affairs and Northern Development) are working "towards the development of a single window approach to ensure better integration and coordination." Do we still need to nudge government action on this issue? Absolutely. Is this a positive step forward? Absolutely.

Given this positive impetus, how do we become more engaged with building future prosperity: investing in the right start for children? What's the strategic and competitive advantage for business to invest in children? How can all three levels of government, as well as the private and voluntary sectors work together more effectively? I'm very much preaching to the converted here…what would happen if this room was also filled with CEOs from the GTA?

Perhaps I would tell them that 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. We all bear a burden for failing to provide the "right start" to our children.

I could also tell CEOs about a new study published in the May 2002 issue of the American journal Psychological Science; it finds that "better caregiver training and lower staff-child ratios in child care settings lead to improvements in children's cognitive skills and social competence." And what about various model programs in other communities and countries - the child care and education systems in Scandinavia and France, as well as municipal schools for children ages 3 months to 6 years in Reggio Emilia, Italy? Why do other countries and communities "get it" sooner than we do?

And to top it off, I would ensure more CEOs receive The Early Years Study Three Years Later report (McCain/Mustard - August 2002), not to mention a copy of the Toronto Report Card on Children (Update 2002) and Margaret McCain's remarks from the Toronto Children's Summit two weeks ago. Would I encourage CEOs (their support teams) to check out the Founders' Network web site for research papers/presentations (including work from Jane Bertrand who's here tonight) and success stories from across the country and beyond? You bet I would - there's a huge list of links/sources…and you're right, I wouldn't inundate them with all this information at once - one document and one web site at a time! And without a doubt, we (an early years champion and I) would also meet with CEOs, as nothing really replaces face-to-face communication…one CEO at a time!

And there's much more…perhaps I would mention the Commission for Early Learning and Child Care for the City of Toronto Final Report - refer to the important link between building future prosperity and investing in children. I could say to CEOs: although the federal government must lead the way by creating child care partnerships and committing to a renewed Early Childhood Development Initiative that produces measurable outcomes (as addressed in the recent Speech from the Throne); and the provincial government should establish a legislative/funding framework to implement the main recommendations of the Early Years Study; and the City of Toronto should expand coalitions with the district school board and community partners…the private sector needs to recognize that early years development is a business issue and a topic for the boardroom, where the stakes are high. Business can also use its clout to encourage/support government action at every level.

I would also remind them that early learning and child care supports innovation and successful cities, as it improves school performance, reduces social assistance costs, expands economic activity, supports diversity and improves family/work life. We already know that a young child's development cannot take place without nurturing and care - that it's counterproductive to separate the needs of children from their parents. Supporting children and supporting child care go hand in hand.

Corporations are part of the community…and the best solutions are community-based. When it comes to children, there are unlimited possibilities and strategies - I would ask CEOs the following:

Has your workplace considered on-site/near-site child care centres, child care subsidies, after-school programs, parental networks, information and referral services, or investing in/sponsoring targeted children's initiatives? Has your workplace broadened its scope re job sharing, flexible hours, extended maternity leave, and family care leaves? Do you encourage staff/management representation on children's advocacy boards? These are elements of a sound business strategy, a healthier workplace and a competitive advantage.

And I would tell them about what RBC Financial Group is doing - that the underlying goal of our corporate citizenship programs is prosperity for Canada/Canadians. To achieve this, we must support education and learning - we must support children/young people - as future prosperity depends on well-developed minds - intelligence, imagination, ingenuity and innovation. We must continue to foster partnerships/relationships with business, government, communities and our own employees (work/life initiatives) in order to meet these objectives. There's much to do and learn…

For example, the RBC After-School Grants Program includes two projects in what we still refer to as North York: Doorsteps Neighbourhood Services and North York Community House. We provide funding to support development opportunities for children - after-school activities such as: reading, homework help, music lessons and athletics. At Doorsteps, employees of a local branch rotate weekly visits to assist participants with reading. At North York Community House, an RBC employee is an active board member. What a treat to see Magdalena Kilps-Diaz here this evening.

We also support Integra, a mental health centre dedicated to helping children and adolescents with learning abilities; the Macaulay Child Development Centre - it fosters the optimal development of children, in partnership with the family and community through: integrated child care, education and support to parents/caregivers, innovative leadership, consultation/training and participation in social policy and community development; and the Canadian Education Association's Kids From Kanata project, a national on-line educational exchange project that promotes students' awareness, understanding and appreciation of the cultural, social, and political issues of native and non-native people living in Canada. KFK operates in partnership with York University's Faculty of Education.

The bottom line is that when it comes to making a difference for children and youth, we all have a shared responsibility. 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/economic development. Adventure Place knows what I mean as this organization has been successful in developing partnerships for 30 years now! The Counselling Foundation of Canada, the Early Years Action Group (Toronto North Quadrant), North York Community House, Toronto Association for Community Living, HRDC, the City/Province, Community Action Program for Children (CAPC), Healthy Babies, Healthy Children, schools, hospitals/clinics, family services…are just a few examples. I read Jason's and Jennifer's story on Adventure Place brochures and understood why your treatment, early intervention, prevention and community mobilization services/programs are so very important.

So I would also tell CEOs about the Adventure Place success story - that your agency, serving children with special developmental, behaviourial, social, emotional, communication, attention or learning needs (from birth to six years) offers an integrated (total child), continuum approach that targets all kids - that's universal in design and collaborative by nature. I would also mention that in order for Adventure Place to continue offering speech, language and psychological assessments plus play therapy for children, parent education (workshops and support groups), staff consultation with child care centres and kindergarten workers, there's a further need for additional funding and volunteer support to ensure ongoing success.

As I look around this room and see the likes of Leolyn Hendricks, who leads your current board, along with Phil Willis, Andy Araham, Jack Baskerville, Helen Giannoulias, Mirella Tersigni and Andrea Walker, I'm conscious of champions and parents who are making a difference. When I see the likes of Pat MacKay, who's been the Honourary Chair of Adventure Place since 1972 - the very beginning (this deserves applause all unto itself), Liz Marshall, Marilyn van Norman, Dede Sinclair, Mary O'Regan, Ira Applebaum, Joanne Abeles, Lynn Abbott, Karen Nolan, Sue Sisam, Sue Comish, Ruth Nord and Paula Berton, it's clear that former board members and staff are still very much a part of the Adventure Place family. And last but certainly not least, I applaud the impressive Adventure Place staff - the dedicated professionals in the areas of social work, psychology, early childhood education, teaching, speech and language, research and business, led by the equally impressive Clara Will.

And this room is also filled with many children's advocates/supporters…I'm delighted to see Leona Dombrowksy, MPP for Hastings-Frontenac-Lennox and Addington here tonight. Given Leona's commitment to children/communities, I can understand why she's known throughout her riding as the "Walking Woman". And I'm most pleased to see Dave Vickers of Ontario's Promise, Gerald Pezzot of the Ministry of Community, Family & Children's Services as well as a number of educators and community leaders. Some of my rotary club friends have also joined us this evening: Pauline Hill, Vern Heaslip, Chris Snyder and Gayle Seddon (they heard me speak just a few months ago and still came out again). I wish there was time to single out all of you…

In closing, I want to thank Clara Will for inviting me to speak at this special gathering and Pat Armitage for coordinating this event. The founder and senior chairman of McDonald's Restaurants, George Cohon (who along with Fraser and me sits on Ontario's Promise Board of Councillors) will be happy to know his head office was the venue for your AGM. Adventure Place understands that investing in children is very much a strategic initiative in the workplace and in the community. RBC Financial Group will continue to make children and youth one of our priorities and give greater focus to the early years…I'll also continue to urge my colleagues in business to find investing in children partners. I urge all of you to remind business associates, about the strategic value of this investment - not once, but over and over again.

Finally, a few months ago, the Prime Minister announced the creation of a new Prime Minister's Award for Excellence in Early Childhood Education. This award is an extension of the Prime Minister's Awards for Teaching Excellence (RBC is proud to be a corporate partner), which honour exceptional elementary and secondary school teachers. It was music to my ears to hear the Prime Minister say: "Research has shown that the early years are critical to establishing a strong foundation for learning, behaviour and health over lifetimes. Dedicated and talented early childhood educators are key builders of this foundation. The award will recognize the critical role that early childhood educators play in shaping the lives of Canada's young children and will include a special focus on aboriginal early childhood educators." Given the nature of the annual Jack Weber award, there's no doubt that Adventure Place is ahead of the pack when it comes to recognizing exceptional talent in the field of early childhood education.

The time is now to get more business representation at events such as this one. In the wake of an uncertain environment that continues to preoccupy the world, it's doubly important that we champion children and place building future prosperity: investing in the right start for children on the top of our agendas. As for leadership, all we need to do is glance around this room and look at Adventure Place's history and proven record! Happy 30th Anniversary Adventure Place and many, many more!

If we have some time before the Weber award, let's chat about ideas and good practices for a few minutes …I would really enjoy hearing from you!

Thank you.

 

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