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Early learning and child care:
The cost of not doing enough

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Charlie Coffey
Executive Vice President
Government & Community Affairs
RBC Financial Group
Economic$ of Child Care Conference
Delta Fredericton
Fredericton, New Brunswick

Friday, November 19, 2004

Brenda, thank you very much for the generous introduction…what a pleasure to have someone from Business New Brunswick set the tone for this luncheon. After all, an investment in early learning and child care is very much about generating economic prosperity, cultivating partnerships with stakeholders and seizing opportunities for growth and innovation. Your Premier got it right in more ways than one when he said: "Greater Opportunity (New Brunswick's prosperity plan) is our long-term vision for economic growth. It's a vision based on one overriding belief: that greater prosperity for our province is the path to greater opportunity for our people." Greater opportunity - the path to prosperity - is very much about an investment in early learning and child care.

It's always a great treat to visit New Brunswick - my birth province - and it's a delight to join all of you in Fredericton this morning. How could I say anything but "yes" to Chrystele Pinsonneault's invitation to talk about one of my passions - investing in early learning and child care? One of Canada's communications pioneers, the late Marshall McLuhan, often shared his thoughts about children. You may recall his remark about changing infant diapers that goes like this: "Diaper backwards spells repaid. Think about it." Many interpretations have followed over the years - I prefer the one that suggests there are short/long-term "benefits" for taking care of children early on. And the link to prosperity is key, as is the premise, there's the cost of not doing enough.

I'm convinced that business (both large and small) has a vital role to play in what I refer to as the collaborative solution on the path to prosperity. Strong, diverse public sector, community and business leadership needs to be at the same table when it comes to policy direction and issues about early learning and child care. And make no mistake about it - child care is part of the early learning equation. And remember, history has proven time and time again that shifts or changes in public policy don't usually take off until the business community rallies behind them.

I liked the news release about this event (dated October 14), as it told me that New Brunswick gets it - important stakeholders came together to organize this event: the Advisory Council on the Status of Women, as well as Business New Brunswick and Training and Employment Development and Early Childhood Care and Education NB. It also hit the high points: "The link between economic development and child care services will be the uncommon theme of a provincial conference next month aimed at economic development agencies and community leaders." This is an uncommon theme for sure - in some cases, equating to "getting comfortable with the uncomfortable"!

"This conference on child care is unusual because of its interest in the return on investment of quality child care services," said Mary Lou Stirling, chairperson of the New Brunswick Advisory Council on the Status of Women. "New Brunswick seems ready for this. We were certainly met with enthusiasm by both Minister Peter Mesheau of Business New Brunswick and Minister Margaret-Ann Blaney of Training and Employment Development when we suggested this initiative. Child care services are part of the infrastructure that enables people to get to work, just like a transportation system. Without child care services, employers have difficulty keeping staff and community development plans are stymied. And without quality child care services, children as well as the economy suffer. Early child development shapes the health of individuals and of societies."

I encourage you to ask Gord Cleveland, along with my panel partner today Lynell Anderson, Jane Bertrand and Wendy Johnston, about the Child Care for a Change: Shaping the 21st Century conference in Winnipeg last weekend - the first major policy gathering focusing on early childhood education in over 20 years.

In addition to Wendy, New Brunswick delegates will likely have much to share with all of you…by all means connect with Gisele Bujold-Michaud (NB Advisory Council on the Status of Women in Grand Sault), Jodi Campbell (New Maryland Children's Centre), and from Fredericton, Sherry Canavan (Northside Daycare) and Dixie Lee Mitchell (Early Childhood Consultant and Trainer). That's the good news - the bad news is that business wasn't well represented at the conference.

Yet, it's clear that business has a vested interest in supporting the development of sound public policy, as business has a stake in early learning and child care outcomes, i.e., education, employment, health, safety and community engagement. Show me a leading CEO who doesn't believe that cultivating, attracting and retaining top talent is a strategic priority. Show me a leading CEO who doesn't get the connection between corporate responsibility and building business, not to mention employee commitment. Show me a leading CEO who doesn't equate the value of business, government and community partnerships with advancing the economic and social justice agenda. I'd like to chat with a leading CEO who doesn't understand that improving shareholder value tomorrow has everything to do with investing in children and families today. Generating a high level of business interest can help make the difference.

The bottom line is that business leaders need to step up to the plate. And they need to hear and discuss research findings - evidence. The contribution of early learning and child care to the creation and nurturing of human capital cannot be ignored. Here's some research at work that shows why investing in children is good economics and good business:

  • "For every $1 spent on child care there is a $2 economic benefit. The benefit comes back through increased tax revenues, and decreased social, education and health costs."

  • "A child's brain development in the first six years of life sets the foundation for lifelong learning, behaviour and health."

  • "If the first few years of life include support for growth in cognition, language, motor skills, adaptive skills and social-emotional functioning, the child is more likely to succeed in school and later in society."

  • High-quality early childhood education produces "long-term positive outcomes and cost-savings that include improved school performance, reduced special education placement, lower school dropout rates, and increased lifelong earning potential. Employers increasingly find that the availability of good early childhood programs is critical to the recruitment and retention of parent employees."

  • "It's estimated that work-life conflicts cost Canadian organizations roughly $2.7 billion in lost time due to work absences."

More research, can be found on the Voices for Children web site - www.voicesforchildren.ca. Voices for Children is asking Canadians to "Sign On for A Canada Fit for Children" through an e-mail campaign. "Voices wants to see 5,000 messages sent to the government by November 20th (tomorrow, which is National Child Day), letting them know that Canadians endorse the government's vision and national action plan to support children, youth and families, including the creation of a comprehensive system of early learning and child care programs."

It's also good to see more insight sharing on the subject, with a different slant, in articles such as: Socio-Legal Issues about Childcare by Mary Ross Hendriks and Patricia DeGuire (in the Ontario Bar Association's newsletter Voices - the Feminist Legal Analysis Section, October 2004). From Patchwork to Framework - Highlights of a Childcare Strategy for Canada, produced by the Child Care Advocacy Association of Canada, is another great piece of material…and people like Jane Bertrand and New Brunswick's Jody Dallaire will share more, as will Lynell in a couple of minutes.

Facts, figures, and return on investment are the kind of language that business understands. And the message is simple: we all bear a burden for failing to provide the "right start" to our children. We need more business leaders to view early learning and child care as an economic issue, not just an education or social issue. It's an important economic issue because early learning and care enables parents to work, learn and train while helping to prepare children for a brighter future. It's a wise investment in 2004 to ensure a competitive workforce and economy in 2014.

We know that early learning and care has earned its place on the Canadian political landscape. The time is now to push the envelope on an agenda that must move forward (with the support of all three levels of government), which means making early learning and care a national and universal priority, targeting the children most in need and putting more money directly into high quality child care. Canada requires a coordinated approach to ensure program quality and to serve more children/families, including a focus on aboriginal children.

The Honourable Margaret McCain (co-author of the Ontario Early Years Study and a name well known in this province), and I sent an Open Letter to Minister Dryden on November 1, applauding his vision for an early learning and child care system as the next great social initiative. Among several points, we encouraged the provinces to rationalize their disconnected early education, child care and parent support services to provide a stable platform for expansion. We encouraged the raising of government standards for early learning and care programs to promote quality and win public trust. And we also encouraged the development of service plans with goals and timetables for expansion and quality enhancements to hold governments accountable. The complete letter is available on the Atkinson Charitable Foundation web site, www.atkinsonfoundation.ca.

Business has a key role to play in helping to nudge government action on early learning and child care issues - in helping to influence public policy. Perhaps business - workplace employees - can also participate in what could soon be Ottawa's "new Lego-land, if a campaign by advocates of a national child care program starts to build momentum across the country. Supporters are urging Canadians to send politicians a piece of the popular kids' toy in a symbolic move to ensure the building blocks of child care and early childhood education aren't ignored when a proposed federal program rolls out. The move comes after Minister Ken Dryden said last Friday he hopes the $5 billion over five years the Liberals promised for child care in the election campaign can begin flowing as early as this coming April." If anyone is interested in finding out more about this campaign, let us know.

Creating innovative strategies for early learning and child care contributes to Canada's path to prosperity. As such, why wouldn't innovative business leaders consider workplaces that employ on-site/near-site child care centres, child care subsidies, after-school programs, parental networks, information and referral services, job sharing, flexible hours or extended parental leave/family care leaves?

Why wouldn't innovative business leaders encourage investments in targeted children's initiatives and representation on children's advocacy boards? And why wouldn't innovative business leaders support partnerships with governments and communities - and the sharing of best practices? These are all elements of a sound business strategy that develops human capital, promotes a healthier workplace and sustains a competitive advantage.

By the way, "the recent edition of Today's Parent reveals Canada's Top 10 Family-Friendly Employers. Recent studies indicate that employees can be more productive, are less likely to call in sick and remain at a company longer when their employers are supportive of family and personal commitments." It was gratifying to note the South-East Regional Health Authority in Moncton, among the top 10.

It's clear this room is filled with people who demonstrate the value of leadership in action and collaboration when it comes to children and partnership building in the community. I can't help but better appreciate the power of the collective voice plus the value of raising the volume and the bar when it comes to investing in children. From Richard LeBlanc (Enterprise Network), Stephanie Bolger (Aboriginal Head Start - Under One Sky), Stephane Robichaud (Canadian Federation of Independent Business), Carlena Munn (RBC Dominion Securities), Linda Gould (Early Childhood Care and Education), to Katie Young/Ramona Solomon/ Kelly Paul (various students that are here), Kristina Rogers (NB Aboriginal People's Council), Glenda Greene (Social Development Canada), Misty McLaughlin (Office of the Official Opposition), Claudette Landry (Public Health), Diane Hawkins (Public Safety), Lynn King (Urban Core Support Network) and Belinda Allen (Enterprise Saint John) - if only there was time to name everyone - each and every one of you is part of the collective voice.

It's long overdue for the business leadership voice to be heard in greater numbers. "In today's world, where education and skill levels determine future earnings, the economic and social costs to individuals, communities, and the nation of not taking action on early childhood education are far too great to ignore, especially when the benefits far outweigh the costs." As the saying goes, it takes a village to raise a child…so when igniting the early learning and child care flame with collaborative solutions and action, remember to count business in, as there's a cost to not doing enough. Keep up the great work New Brunswick!

Special thanks to Chrystele Pinsonneault for coordinating my participation here today - I look forward to an open discussion after Lynell speaks…

Thank you…


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