Educating for Democracy

Annual lecture for the Frank McKenna Centre for Communications and Public Policy Distinguished Speaker Series.
September 27, 2017.  Fredericton, New Brunswick

I would like to begin with a story.

In the middle of the last century, a young man from rural New Brunswick invited a young woman from rural Nova Scotia for a 10-cent cup of coffee. This led to more dates where they shared their hopes for the future. His dream was to start a business of his own. The following year they married. Soon thereafter they returned to his home community, where with his brother, they launched their business venture from the product of the land –- the lowly potato. McCain

They built what is now a multinational frozen French fry corporation and all they knew about French fries was that they tasted good. That young man was my husband.

Canada is a country where such dreams can become a reality with an idea, energy, and perseverance. Our country values and nurtures these characteristics. 

We place high importance on humanity with a low tolerance for corruption. We have a high expectancy for truth and transparency and a low tolerance for racism and discrimination.

We are known for our capacity to respect and welcome different cultures and faiths. We reject bigotry, misogyny, and hatred.

Speaking in Hamburg, Germany earlier this year Prime Minister Trudeau warned how fragile these values are. When “companies post record profits on the backs of workers in low wage, precarious jobs, people get defeated,” he said.

When “governments serve special interests instead of the interests of the citizens who elected them, people lose faith.”

Inequality can make citizens distrust governments and employers, and we’re watching that anxiety transform into anger on an almost daily basis.

“We can’t go about things the same way and expect to succeed in this new world,” Trudeau said. He called on companies to pay a living wage, and governments to create the conditions that promote equality.

A decade ago, a very similar narrative went into the creation of my family’s foundation.

We made access to quality early childhood education -- for all -- our core mission. Done well, early education delivers many valuable outcomes –- and I will touch on some of those. But what is critical about early education is its capacity to be the great equalizer.

Canadian babies are pretty much the same at birth, but by the time they start school there are big gaps in their health, vocabulary and self-confidence. Some will have a much harder time getting along with their classmates and teachers. They may not have the basic skills of their peers, such as how to dress or properly feed themselves.

The sad news is school won’t be able to compensate these children for what they missed in their earliest years. Worse, the difficulties they experience at school entry are likely to grow, rather than lessen, over time.

As adults, low levels of literacy will leave them less able to participate, more alienated, and more vulnerable to demagogues offering simplistic, dangerous “solutions” to complex problems.

Mr. Trudeau stated what social scientists have been documenting for some time. We are in a period of rapid change resulting in economic dislocation. This has consequences for how people view democracy and its institutions. 

Public policy must respond by helping citizens to understand what is happening, and by supporting them to adjust. At the same time it must prepare the next generation to lead and flourish in the new environment.

This is the humane thing to do. It makes economic sense. And, the Canada we know depends on it.

Look at democracies more long lived than ours:  Britain elected self-harm in the passing of Brexit. The extreme-right lies just below the surface across Europe. Donald Trump may shock, appall, and even entertain, but if the polls are accurate – one-in-four Canadians admire his approach on immigration.

In 2016, the World Economic Forum released its first list of the world’s top 20 countries. Canada ranks number two overall, just behind Germany.

For quality of life, we rank number one. The stability of our political system, our access to clean air and water, and our comprehensive education and health services contribute to our top spot.

A number two ranking is a very good place to be, and we can be proud of it. But here it is necessary to take a closer look at our red flags flapping -- income inequality, child poverty and the gender wage gap.

  • 42 percent of Canadians are functionally illiterate. Across Canada high school students are graduating with a general certificate. This means they are NOT sufficiently literate or numerate for today’s economy. 
  • They cannot process written information, operate today’s industrial equipment or drive a high tech car or truck..
  • 4 million Canadians live with food insecurity – hunger. This is more than 10 percent of our population
  • One in five Canadians suffer from mental illness. 
  • Unemployment is 6.3 percent – youth unemployment is 11.5 percent. How much of this is due to lack of job skills? 
  • We are not even close to meeting standards in greenhouse gas emissions. 
  • Our record with Indigenous peoples is shameful.

The continued underfunding of Aboriginal health, education and social services relative to other Canadians perpetuates the trauma of residential schools.

We do have serious problems confronting us and the response must be both national and international.

In this century, there will be nine billion human beings on the planet. These numbers are changing how we live and organize ourselves. They influence socioeconomic initiatives and infrastructures; and test the limits of the environment.

Canada will not be immune. The future is already here.

Famine has swept across Somalia and other parts of the region. Five years of drought preceded the carnage in Syria. Scarcity of food and water precipitated an explosion of inter-faith, inter-ethnic cleansing which has displaced millions.

A fraction of the diaspora has made its way to our shores. We have welcomed these small numbers, who will make their contributions to building Canada. But what of the millions on the run from war, climate catastrophe and rulers hostile to them because of their race, religion, gender or sexual orientation?

Instead of an humanitarian response, too often countries seal their doors in response to the fear and anger generated by the likes of Donald Trump.

But walls do not make us safer. Our security, indeed our very survival as a species, depends on our ability to close the gap between rich and poor, and ensure that future generations have the capacity to sustain democratic and pluralistic societies.

As humans we have a distinct capability to innovate, create technologies and find solutions to complex problems but low levels of literacy challenge our ability.

The architects that gave rise to Trump know that illiteracy and democracy can not co-exist. This is why they have made the destruction of public education central to their agenda. Charter schools have not provided families with educational choice or improved children’s outcomes. They have made private operators fabulously wealthy with public money.

Betty DeVos, a billionaire who had never seen the inside a public school, was selected to finish them off.

Canada has an advantage. Its schools enjoy high public confidence. In international assessment we are in the top 10%, but lag behind the top performers who use their educational system more intently, enrolling children at a younger age and expanding options for working parents.

It is in years before school entry when the foundations of learning, health and behavior are established. It is when children develop their basic values, attitudes and skills.

Young children have an innate sense of fairness and are capable of cultivating racial and cultural literacies along with numeracy and reading.

Research by Dr. Kang Lee at the University of Toronto shows how even infants recognize racial differences. But the more diverse the community they are exposed to, the less likely children are to internalize differences as negative.

Yet the views of policy makers, educators, parents and the public can foster inequities.

And now I will use the advantage of being 80 to tell you what I really think.

  • Inequity begins early in life when affluent families can buy their children a quality preschool experience and others can’t. 
  • It is perpetuated when some must go through a demeaning subsidy process for their children to participate. 
  • It happens inside classrooms with the promotion of “kindergarten readiness” suggesting that some children must be made ready to learn. 
  • It happens through assessments of very young children used to document the gaps between cultural, racial, and linguistic communities and then to blame them for their lack of educational progress. 
  • It happens with packaged parenting programs aimed at changing parenting styles, cultural practices or home language. 
  • It takes places when ESL students are segregated into “English” classes; effectively privileging the children of middle class families with exclusive French immersion education.

Then there are the assumptions that inequity can be addressed with one-off, short-term interventions. Prefab kits and boutique programs are imposed on educators without regard for the intimate knowledge they have of their students. Unfortunately New Brunswick has fallen prey to this more than most.

I cannot stress enough how problematic, and how wasteful it is, to rely on packaged interventions to reduce learning gaps.

They have been created for everything:  literacy, math, music, diversity, parenting, empathy, and so on.

They are developed without consulting public education – its ministries, training colleges, schools and preschools, but they are marketed to them.

As such – if they have any merit -- they don’t add to the knowledge base, they don’t change everyday practice; and they don’t change outcomes for kids.

Proven to improve children’s life chances is quality early education.

We are of course vested in children’s literacy and math skills. We care about school success – and good quality early education is associated with all of these. In addition, the immense value of early education is it allows every child to comfortably find his or her place in the diversity that is Canada.

By organizing early education to support parents’ work, we can reduce inequality that is rooted in poverty. We have a made-in-Canada example of this in Quebec. An expansion of early learning and care programs halved the number of lone mothers on social assistance and reduced the rate of child poverty by half.

The lack of good educational care creates a “care penalty” for women, which negatively impacts their economic well-being over the life course.

Precarious work, and the high cost of housing and childcare contribute to declining birth rates. Women delay having children, limit their families or forego children entirely – not by choice but of necessity. A red flag flapping in a hurricane is young people with so little confidence in their own futures that they refuse to have children.

We have been working with Conference Board of Canada on the release next month of what we believe will be an important study. The Conference Board understands what makes economies work. It documents how inequality drags on Canada’s productivity and has analyzed the impact of universal early education on reducing the equity gap. It quantifies early education’s lasting benefits for children, particularly for those from disadvantaged families. When those benefits are rolled up to a population level, early education returns more than it costs.

There are encouraging signs that policy makers are hearing this message. We welcome the federal government’s renewed interest in early learning and childcare. We note the efforts made by provinces and territories to expand access, and improve the quality of early years services. And kudos to New Brunswick; it has prioritized early education and care even while confronting economic challenges.

While early education is a provincial and territorial responsibility, the federal government has a particular responsibility for programming for Aboriginal families. It alone has the capacity to support pan-Canadian research and innovation and to provide transparent reporting to Canadians on the wellbeing of their children.

Discussions of early education must consider its place within a child and family strategy.This includes income supports and parental leave.

All governments have improved income supports to families, but outside Quebec, Canada’s parental leave policy has not changed since 2006 and fewer and fewer new parents have access.

Flexible parental leave is a complement to early education. But only 60% of mothers outside Quebec take parental leave when their baby is born. For those earning under $30,000 the rate is only 40%. The most vulnerable families have the least access to what is suppose to be a universal program.

Early education is central to many public priorities includingreducing illiteracy, supporting innovation, attracting and retaining a skilled workforce, increasing fertility and improving educational outcomes.

Together we need to identify and share new thinking about how to spend wiser, and expand access while improving quality. Could Ottawa host a clearinghouse of innovative approaches?

For example:

  • Parental leave is less expensive than childcare for infants.
  • Why not include 4 year olds in under enrolled kindergarten classes?
  • What about before and after school programs in schools?
  • Let’s delink childcare subsidies from parent’s work
  • Could libraries and schools join forces to share facilities, books and librarians?
  • How about changing the federal Child Care Expense Deduction to a benefit?
  • Include early education in school funding formulas?

The possibilities are many and should be explored.

Progress must be measureable.The Early Childhood Education Report evaluates provincial/territorial progress in early childhood programming. With a baseline established in 2011, and subsequent reporting in 2014 and scheduled again for 2017 and 2020, it provides an accessible means of communicating progress.

Investment in early education also matters. Canadian governments collectively spend the equivalent of 0.6% of Canada’s GDP on early learning and care programs.

This places us among the bottom third among our OECD counterparts – behind Lithuania and on par with the U.S. It is time for Canada to up its contribution for its youngest citizens.

The only province that comes close to reaching the OECD target is Quebec. Quebec’s family policy is 20 years old this year.

A commission examining its status provides a portrait of a service that helped to transform and modernize Quebec society, but it is now tired. Its facilities and workforce need nurturing.

The commission made a number of recommendations to improve childcare’s “contributions to equal opportunity”.

Central is to replace the idea of daycare as a service so parents can work, with a system formally integrated with public education, and “covered by the same broad principles of universal and free access.”

Canada is well placed to take up this challenge. We can enhance equity of opportunity by building onto public education to provide every child with the best start possible.

Early education isn’t about desks and miniature textbooks. Rather educators with specialized training coach children to answer their own questions by exploring options, experimenting and working cooperatively with others. These rich playful settings fuel children’s natural curiosity and learning soars.

Building education down makes sense. Among our Anglo-American counterparts, Canada has the highest enrolment in publicly funded education.

Parent confidence is well founded. Our public schools have produced our premiers and prime ministers, Supreme Court judges, recipients of the Order of Canada and cultural and scientific icons.

Schools have helped prepare children born here and abroad to participate in shaping our democratic institutions.

As schools respond to their communities across the life cycle, support for public education, for pluralism, and for democracy grows.

Early education -- it is a great equalizer.

I began with a story. I would like to end with one. My dear friend, the late Dr. Ann Sherman, Dean of Education at the University of New Brunswick, had a doctoral student from Bhutan. The student lived in Fredericton along with her two young sons. During the holiday season they heard a lot about Jesus. One day, the seven year old commented to Ann that this Jesus guy was a lot like Buddha. Ann agreed, adding that they both believed in a peaceful and loving world.

In Canada, Jesus and Buddha can be good neighbours.

We can’t be complacent about what a marvelous accomplishment this is. We must stand on guard, to ensure a Canada where such stories continue to flourish.

Thank you.

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