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It’s time to invest in high quality early child development — beyond affordable childcare

A version of this commentary appeared in the Hill Times, the Huffington Post and Hamilton Spectator

When inequality in Canada goes up, child well-being goes down

National Child Day has been celebrated across Canada every November 20th since 1993 to commemorate the United Nations’ adoption of two documents describing children’s rights: The 1959 United Nations Declaration of the Rights of the Child and the 1989 United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Unfortunately, National Child Day 2016 received very little media fanfare or comment in Canada. Judging from UNICEF’s newly released Report Card 13: Fairness for Children, which measures the depths of inequality in children’s well-being across the richest countries in the world, there is little to celebrate.

The UNICEF report card reveals how far rich countries like Canada have allowed their most disadvantaged children to fall behind the ‘average’ child in health, education, income and life satisfaction. The report concludes that Canada is one of the more unequal societies for children and youth, ranking 26th of 35 rich nations.

The report makes clear that as inequality goes up, child well-being goes down.

UNICEF is not the only organization raising concern about child well-being in our country.  A 2014 Canadian Institute of Health Information (CIHI) report concluded that 26 percent of Canadian children demonstrate a developmental problem in communication, language, cognition, social-emotional or physical health by the time they reach kindergarten. Of note, 35 percent of children in low-income neighbourhoods are prone to poor development compared with 20 percent of children from high-income neighbourhoods.

Given that inequalities emerge early in life — and seem to persist — it is imperative and urgent that Canada invest, develop and sustain a high quality early child development framework.

While the federal government has committed to working with the provinces on early learning and childcare, conversations are centred on additional daycare spaces and addressing daycare cost. These two accessibility factors are important, but we must remind our leaders in government and the community, that traditional daycare services alone only constitute one piece of the puzzle.

We suggest that Canada build upon the vision and words that both Dr. Fraser Mustard and the Honourable Margaret McCain articulated in their Understanding the Early Years reports, where they describe comprehensive approaches to early childhood development, care and learning that at the core recognize, foster and support parents and families in their role as children’s first and most influential teachers.

Their vision can be seen through the tremendous work and research conducted with early learning centres like Toronto First Duty and across several Early Childhood Development Centres in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island, where universal models for integrating child care, kindergarten, family support and other services in school-based community hubs have been implemented.

Unfortunately, many of these sites have not been sustained, or are not yet sustainable, without a national reframing of early childhood development as a critical social service worthy of our attention and investment.

To achieve better developmental outcomes for children and youth, we also need to shift our thinking to equity from equality. Equity is giving everyone what they need to be successful while equality is treating everyone the same.

Treating everyone the same is not working for Canada’s children.

One way to bridge the widening opportunity gap is to introduce early learning centres across the country that wrap services around young families and children.  The goal would be to improve family functioning and promote healthy child development and learning pre- and postnatally, giving children and families, particularly those with low-income, the leg-up they need to be successful in school and in life.

The time is now. Record numbers of children in Canada are living in poverty in spite of an all-party resolution in 1989 to end child poverty by the year 2000.

As we approach the Christmas season, let’s encourage policy makers to invest in, develop and sustain a high quality early child development framework that prioritizes child and family health, development, care and learning.  It’s time we addressed inequities and not simply access to affordable childcare.


Erin Schryer is the Executive Director of Elementary Literacy Inc., a provincial non-profit organization in New Brunswick with a mission to offer and champion the development of high-quality early literacy programs and policies for ensuring more New Brunswick children learn to read early and well.

Nicole Letourneau is an expert advisor with EvidenceNetwork.ca and a professor in the Faculties of Nursing and Medicine. She also holds the Alberta Children’s Hospital Foundation Chair in Parent-Infant Mental Health at the University of Calgary. 

December 2016

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.