Summit on Early Childhood Education

Margaret McCain’s address to the Summit on Early Childhood Education 
Montreal, May 5, 2017

I am feeling my Quebec roots today. Much of my early years were spent in Amos, a small community in Northern Quebec, where my father worked as a mining engineer. Our family became expert campers accompanying him on his prospecting trips into the wilderness. My father developed many productive mines, which helped to distinguish the region as a mining centre.

Twenty years ago, Quebec distinguished itself as the most family-friendly province in Canada.

To families elsewhere, who pay the equivalent of a second mortgage for care; Quebec’s $5 a day childcare became a beacon of the possible. When affordable childcare was complemented by enhanced parental leave the benefits began to multiply.

Quebec’s family policy was primarily designed to support the labour force participation of mothers. It accomplished this well. Pierre Fortin and his team of economists documented the 70,000 mothers of young children who entered the workforce because of low cost care. The program reduced family poverty, lowered social costs and raised the status of women, while generating enough revenue to pay for itself.

The popularity of the program caused consecutive governments to seek solutions to growing demand. They turned to private operators, provided generous tax relief and relied heavily on home care.

But home caregivers are not child development specialists. A tax credit is not early education. And studies show that private centres skimp on the elements of quality.

If these challenges loom large in Quebec it is only because they exist on a much larger scale. They are prevalent in every other Canadian jurisdiction but are buried in the tininess of their programs.

As Quebec’s childcare network turned 20, the Association québécoise des centres de la petite enfance, launched a commission tasked with assessing the past, in order to inform the future.

Its blue-ribbon panel issues a report that is bold and wise.

It poses a most important question: Why does society take responsibility for the education of children starting at age 5 but leave the development of babies and toddlers to the private resources of their families?

The commission’s report calls for free, universal early childhood education. It identifies leavers to improve quality including charging one ministry with responsibility for education policy from birth through secondary schooling, and creating a continuous approach to child development into the school years.

Quebec is not the only province to recently commission an examination of their daycare services.

By comparison the other reports are much, much less visionary; their recommendations much more modest. It is because Quebec -- despite all the difficulties -- is so much further ahead that it has the confidence to ask for more. As the early education leader, you give children’s advocates in the rest of Canada someone to follow. We are in your debt.

Your program, which is much beloved by parents, is derided by others. Any province making the smallest move to improve access to early education and care is lectured about the weaknesses in the Quebec system. Some detractors, unsatisfied with factual deficiencies, actually engage in pseudo-science to invent problems.

Numbers can be manipulated for political purposes. There is no evidence that Quebec babies are less attached to their mothers or that Quebec teens are more anti-social.

It is no coincidence that the Fraser Institute -- better named the Fiction Institute -- refutes the cost /benefits of Quebec’s investments in childcare, just as the federal government releases its early learning plan.

This is the opening salvo of more alt-news to come. Wherever misinformation appears, it is incumbent on us all to be informed and to rebut it. To assist us, we have a great resource in Mr. Fortin who socks it to the Fraser Institute in an excellent article available on the Summit’s website.

Thank you to the Association of CPEs. Thank you to the Commissioners. Thank you to Quebecers for daring to dream big for happy childhoods, for women’s equality, for a more just society.

There will be those who will dismiss you as dreamers, but 20 years ago no one contemplated $5 a day childcare or generous parental leave with exclusive time for dads. There is no better birthplace for free, universal early education than right here, in Quebec. In the near future we will be able to say we were here when it all began.

Thank you.

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