Rights of the Child Conference

Honourable Margaret McCain's address
Early Childhood and the Right to Education: Toddlers and their rights in relation to Articles 28 and 29 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child

Moncton, New Brunswick, June 24, 2018


I must begin my comments today with a call on Canadians and our elected officials to use every leaver at our disposal to condemn the evil we are witnessing in the United States. We are appalled, but unfortunately not surprised, by the heart wrenching scenes of internment camps for young children in Donald Trump’s America. Margaret McCain Address

There is a direct line from Mr. Trump’s barrage of insults against America’s first African-American president, to his denigration of Mexicans, to his tolerance of neo-Nazis, to his vile immigration and travel policies that are tearing families apart.

As president, Trump has gone beyond hurtful words to contemptible policies that include the DACA repeal, the Muslim travel ban and now babies in pens.

Because we are not surprised does not mean we are not alarmed by the acceptance of white supremacist movements, and the insertion of white supremacists into positions of power in the White House.

America is not alone in embracing despotic leadership. The annual Democracy Index shows that democratic governments are in trouble everywhere. Of the 167 countries ranked this year, 89 received lower scores than last year. The percentage of the world's population that lives in a "full democracy" fell to less than five percent.

Democracy is vital to humanity’s survival in an era of nuclear weapons. Its values, including the right to descent and a free press; its recognition of human rights, and the state and civic institutions it has developed to protect those rights and values, sustain us.

Without democracy international agreements, such as the Convention on the Rights of the Child, would have no enforcement mechanisms.

Interestingly although the U.S. was active in drafting the Convention, it remains the sole U.N. member not to ratify it. Consecutive Presidents paid lip service but stopped short of taking it to the Senate. The U.S. now destabilizes the world by quitting the U.N.’s Human Rights Council and withdrawing from international treaties.

Canada was among the first to sign the Convention in 1990, yet our record is not without flaws. Canada has been cited for contraventions, including:

  • The high number of indigenous children apprehended and placed in foster care.
  • Inequality in the provision of social and welfare services for vulnerable children, particularly for indigenous children.
  • The treatment of youth by the justice system.
  • Holding the children of asylum seekers in detention centres.
  • And, poor reporting and accountability standards.

Canada justice system also separates children from their mothers. More than three-quarters of the women in federal and provincial prisons are mothers. More than half the women were the primary caregivers to one or more children when they were sent to prison. This practice affects up to 20,000 children.

Organizations, such as those represented in this room, are able to hold Canada answerable for these violations and in some areas progress has been made.

Even in a flawed democracy such as the U.S., a mobilized citizenry can force autocrats to step back, as witnessed with the presidential order rescinding the continued separation of children from their parents.

For democracy to function, both as a system and as an ideal, it needs an educated population. It cannot tolerate huge disparities between rich and poor.

Prime Minister Trudeau emphasized this in one of his first international speeches after taking office. 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 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.

I recently returned from Paris where international experts examined the challenges to closing the gap between children living in the top and bottom income groups. Among the trends noted is that children and youth are the new poor. In 16 OECD countries child poverty increased following the 2008 recession and has not receded.

Those countries less impacted by the recession, and those that recovered most quickly, had strong educational systems and strong policies promoting gender equity.

Among the experts speaking in Paris was Canadian economist Craig Alexander presenting his analysis on the socio-economic impact of early education and care. Developed by the Conference Board of Canada, the study documents how inequality drags on Canada’s productivity and how universal early education can combat this trend.

In addition to its benefits to children, early education is also central to many other public priorities, Mr. Alexander said. These include reducing illiteracy, supporting innovation, attracting and retaining a skilled workforce, increasing fertility and improving educational outcomes.

Achieving the promised outcomes of quality education requires intelligent investment, Alexander stressed. There must be enough investment so that:

  • Enough children attend -- access matters.
  • Children attend for long enough - duration matters.
  • And, programs are good enough. This means investing in a qualified workforce, and providing it with the tools to do its job.

In most OECD countries, including Canada, upside down thinking results in social investments growing as people age. Social spending on a retiree is almost double that spent on a young child. And while enrolment in early education has grown, still nearly one in two Canadian children start school with no experience in preschool.

When children in some families benefit from preschool that others can’t afford, inequity grows. Even within early education services inequities can be perpetuated.

  • It happens when low-income families are subjected to demeaning processes for their children to participate.
  • 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.

A major challenge to expanding equitable access to quality programs are public policies, which assign the education and care of very young children to a child care market while leaving public education to compensate the victims of market failures.

But by the time children reach school, difficulties experienced in early childhood may have already influenced the structure and functioning of their brains. Interventions undertaken after the effects of trauma has become biologically embedded are much more expensive, and less effective.

For children growing up in war zones, for those on the run from oppression and persecution, for those subjected to family violence or forcible separated from their parents, the distress leaves scars that are profound and lifelong.

Even short periods of parental neglect or separation cause spikes in stress hormones that alter brain circuitry.

These changes to the brain pose general health risks that can affect academic performance, and have been linked to post-traumatic stress, anxiety and other disorders.

This is why our Foundation encourages the extension of public education to include younger children. Quality, nurturing early education is an effective intervention, particularly for children from disadvantaged backgrounds. It helps to compensate children experiencing stress or neglect in the home. It can alleviate tensions by allowing parents to balance work and family, or to take care of their own health needs. Done well it provides a welcome for new Canadians.

The goal is to create an integrated birth to graduation system covered by the principle of universal access. By organizing early education so it also supports parents’ work, we can reduce inequity that is rooted in family poverty. When mothers are able to participate in the workforce, early education can alleviate the economic penalties that child rearing imposes.

An educational continuum designed to reduce inequity must be located within a family strategy. This includes effective income supports and parental leave.

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 the recent indexing of the Child Tax Benefit preserves its buying power.

But there is a need for more urgency. The coming generation faces challenges mine never considered. When I was born there were 2.4 billion people on this planet. By 2025 there will be 8 billion. These numbers test the limits of the environment and our ability to survive as a species.

Yet humans have a distinct capacity to innovate, create technologies and find solutions to complex problems. Our task today is to close the gap between rich and poor and ensure that future generations have the capacity to create democratic, pluralistic and prosperous societies.

Thank you.


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