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Early learning and child care:
The "stars are aligned"…

Charlie Coffey
Executive Vice President
Government & Community Affairs
RBC Financial Group
Economics of Early Childhood Development and Care Luncheon
Holiday Inn
Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario

Monday, November 29, 2004

Steve, thanks very much for the warm introduction…it's been awhile since I was in Sault Ste. Marie (yet I remember my visits well) - making it an even greater pleasure to be here this afternoon. Just before lunch, several local politicians, administrators and I had a round table discussion about early learning and child care questions/issues. I'm pleased that Mayor John Rowswell, Tony Martin, Debbie Amaroso, Guido Caputo, Allan Northan, Anna Zuccato, Vicki Burns, Phil Bumbacco and others have also joined us for lunch. I guess the morning session went OK - and they just want to hear much more!

While perusing one of the Sault Ste. Marie Economic Development Corporation's (SSMEDC) annual reports, I was reminded that the city's history, "prior to 1662 can only be obtained from native legends, which indicate that the Sault is the original meeting place where aboriginal nations gathered from all over North America to conduct business." It's gratifying to see that history truly lives on, as SSMEDC describes the Sault today as "a vibrant community passionately committed to new and exciting ventures…the meeting place for business."

By the way, I'm very impressed with what's happening in this city and region - some headlines of late have got us talking about the Sault in Toronto (as hard as that might be for many of you to believe):

  • Just last Wednesday, the Algoma District School Board acknowledged Korah Collegiate and Vocational School for its accreditation in offering the International Baccalaureate (IB) Program. As the news release read in part, "Korah is one of only 91 schools in all of Canada (one of only 34 in Ontario) that offers the IB Program. An IB Diploma can be a student's passport to some of the world's most renowned universities."
  • And on November 2, I was thrilled to hear that the federal government awarded $1.75 million to Algoma University College, to establish its first Canada Research Chair. I couldn't agree more with president, Dr. Celia Ross, when she said: "the Canada Research Chairs Program recognizes the critical research that will be conducted at Algoma University College…(and) enables Canadian universities to achieve the highest levels of research excellence, become world-class research centres, and attract and retain the best researchers and students." I'll also be watching for the completion of the new Information Technology Centre and Student Centre at Algoma U with great interest. Congratulations - it's good to see Dr. Ross with us today.

It's no accident that I mentioned these education milestones in advance of talking about early learning and child care. Just as it's no accident your milestones were achieved. Investing in children and education is a natural combination. The Sault's investment in education is not unlike the Sault's investment in children - as investing in children is an investment in the Sault's prosperity - in Canada's prosperity - and investing in kids is everybody's business. I'm often reminded of two quotes and one myth when I think about children:

  • "The best inheritance a person can give to his children is a few minutes of his time each day"
    (O. A. Battista);
  • "If you bungle raising your children, I don't think whatever else you do matters."
    (Jacqueline Lee Bouvier Kennedy Onassis); and
  • "Child rearing myth #1: Labour ends when the baby is born" (unknown author).

The bottom line is that the earlier we invest in a child's life, the greater the future dividend. As a business leader I clearly understand that improving shareholder value tomorrow has everything to do with investing in children today.
I'm involved in supporting early learning and child care because it's an economic investment that requires more federal, provincial and municipal government action. RBC can help influence public policy and public opinion. After all, the development of human capital at an early age is key to a prosperous 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? I'm also involved because it's an economic investment that requires more community action…as I said, kids are everybody's business. As a children's advocate (and parent), the only way to make a difference is to get involved and get others involved!

There's no doubt in my mind 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. 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.

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. Key stakeholders have come together to support this event: Ontario Early Years, Algoma Health Unit, District of Sault Ste. Marie - Social Services Administration Board and RBC Financial Group. The link between economic development and child care may be an uncommon theme - but it's time we start "getting comfortable with the uncomfortable"! This gathering is an important step in the right direction…

I encourage you to ask Tony Martin about the Child Care for a Change: Shaping the 21st Century conference in Winnipeg two weeks ago - the first major policy gathering focusing on early childhood education in over 20 years. Tony spoke at the luncheon on November 13th…and it didn't take long for the 650+ delegates to get the picture. This audience knows who and what Tony Martin is all about, as he's served as Sault Ste. Marie's MPP for 13 years, and now MP. You know what he's done to advance the poverty issue (The "People's Parliament of Poverty" forums), and to save jobs/infrastructure here. You also know about his commitment to child care (including his 10-city Pan-Canada fact-finding tour earlier this fall), and so does Social Development Minister Ken Dryden.

At the conference, Tony said, "the stars are aligned now for a national child care plan to finally happen: a minority government with a central role for the NDP; the appointment of Dryden as minister; his appointment of chief of staff Sandra Griffin, a leading child care advocate; the recent international OECD report with its constructive criticism of Canada's patchwork system and the recent federal-provincial initial agreement on a national plan." It does appear the stars are aligned - that there's no going back - that the central debate is over.

That's the good news - the bad news is that business wasn't well represented at the conference. Yet, 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. Generating a high level of business interest in early learning and child care can help make the difference in making the connections.

Business leaders need to step up to the plate - it's as simple as that. 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. 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…

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.

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.

Business has a key role to play in helping to nudge government action (at all three levels) 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 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.

The Honourable Margaret McCain (co-author of the Ontario Early Years Study) 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.

As such, we were pleased when a few days ago (November 25th), Dr. Marie Bountrogianni, the Minister of Children and Youth Services announced that: "Ontario will offer day care for all of the province's kindergarten-aged children by 2007. The first of the 50,000 day-care spaces will be available by the beginning of the next school year. The program is the first step in a 10- to 15-year plan to provide province-wide day care for all children starting at age two-and-a-half. The government will test that early-care model in three pilot projects before the end of its mandate. The test projects will be conducted in three communities - one northern, one rural and one urban." Would this group want Sault Ste. Marie to be on the short list meeting place? If so, this question may be a timely conversation with your MPP, David Orazietti…

"Today we know that early learning and child care is a social and economic driver for many interconnected issues: it's integral to lifelong learning and healthy child development, and to a sound and prosperous economy; it has significant implications for women's equality, effective labour strategies, and ameliorating poverty; and it contributes to flourishing cities and strengthens social equity. High-quality child care and early learning strengthens our social foundations - it benefits children, women, parents, families, and communities - ultimately, it benefits all Canadians."

And it's evident 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 this 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 Dave Edgar, Pat Mick, Lou Turco, Melinda Fremlin, and Claire Lafreniere, to Florence Lake, Kim Streich-Poser, Judy Tucci, Carole McPhee and Art Bennett, there's leadership in action.

And from John Trecoce, Aldo Greco and Jeff Viotto, to Barb Greensted, Bill Durnford, Bruce Strapp, Elizabeth Bodnar, Maria Esposito, David Zuccato, Conrad Bobiwash, Peggy McLean, Joan Desjardins, Jeff Avery and Louis Derrer, there's more leadership in action.

And yes, from Jim Crawford, Mary Ellen Luukonen, Connie Cantin, Jessica Bernhardt, Bob Davies (I always single out the contribution of the police service), Peggy Wesselius, Carla Fairbrother, Kim Seabrook and Mary Ellen Szadkowski, to Richard Rosset, Debbie Rainone, Terry Rainone, Dale Godfrey, Richard Comeau and Guy Dumas, Sault Ste. Marie has the leadership advantage. If only there was time to name everyone - as each and every one of you is part of the collective voice. Susan Boston is very much a part of this collective voice too - thank you Susan for inviting me to the Sault, for coordinating my participation and for all that you do with and through the Algoma Health Unit.

I must also take a moment to share the pride as not only did the Chamber of Commerce present RBC's Bob Worth with the Chamber's President's Award last month - an award that recognizes exceptional effort in business and community development (and of course Bob is now in Kitchener), there's a an exceptional team here that just amazes me. Steve Nixon, Rose Santoro, Donna Hackett, Marcel Rizzo, Sam Rooney, Sandra Gaetano, Jill Douglas, Rick Sutton, Terry Schug, Scott Reynolds, Susan Stefanizzi, Fred Frechette, Norm Sauve, Greg Defelice, Josh Bowden, Lia Tesolin, Lori Naccarato-Sario, Karen Bird, Judy Paquin, Susan McLean, Bev Szatanski, Alan Chattaway and Cain Hussey-Derrer are either associated with the Chamber of Commerce, Easterseal Society-Council, St. Basils' High School, the Lung Association, RotaryFest, Bon Soo Winter Carnival, Safe Community Partnership, Big Brothers, Big Sisters, Child Find, Kidshope, Family Support Community for Habitat for Humanity, Rotary Club of Sault Ste. Marie, Hospital Foundation Board, Kiwanis Club, the Enterprise Centre, Neighbourhood Watch, Batchewana First Nation, the Review Entity Committee and the Lions Club Blind River. Talk about community leadership in action! If I've missed anything, I'm sure Rose will let me know - she too has been a great help in organizing my visit.

Early child development and care thrives on interdependence and collaboration in order to work and work well - it requires leadership at all three levels of government and business leadership at a high level. It's long overdue for the business leadership voice to be heard in greater numbers. It's time we all get with the program!

"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 leadership in action, remember to count business in, as the "stars are aligned"! Among other things Tony, thank you for the phrase…and thank you Mayor John and all of you for the marvelous hospitality in the "naturally-gifted" community of Sault Ste. Marie.

In closing, as author Kathy Davis says so well: "A hundred years from now it will not matter what your bank account was, or the kind of car you drove...but the world may be different because you were important in the life of a child." Thank you!

 

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