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Does Canada Like Kids?

Our leaders keep saying they love children, but our policies pale next to Europe's.

By Charles Ungerleider 7 Apr 2004 | TheTyee.ca

As the federal election heats up, it appears that Paul Martin has obtained copies of his predecessors' election strategies.  Mr. Martin is talking about a children's agenda.

Politicians have teased nearly three generations of Canadian parents with promises of a national strategy on children that includes daycare. During Pierre Trudeau's tenure as prime minister, a taskforce on children looked promising. The Special Committee on Child Care established during Brian Mulroney's tenure also offered hope. And, in the election year of 1993, Jean Chrétien's Liberals made similar promises in their Red Book.

But what would it really mean to make children and families a top priority for government?  According to "What is the Best Policy Mix for Canada's Young Children?" a 2000 report by the Canadian Policy Research Networks, Canada lags behind many European countries in the policies it has made to support young children and families.

It takes a society

The report, authored by Sharon Stroick and Jane Jenson, attributes the gap between Canada and the European countries to value differences. In Canada, the United States, and Britain, children are seen primarily as a responsibility of the family. In countries such as Norway, France, the Netherlands, Germany, and Sweden, children are seen as a responsibility of both the family and the larger society.

The value differences are evident in the maternity benefits of different countries. According to Stroick and Jenson, the differences are ones of degree rather than kind. For example, although the period of support for maternity leave in the European countries and Canada is about the same, the European nations provide for between 80 and 100 per cent of earnings. Canada's maternity benefit is about 55 per cent of earnings.

The value differences are also evident in the number of children aged three to six in publicly funded daycare or school. For Canada, the proportion is approximately 45 per cent. In Europe, 45 per cent is the low end of the scale, which ranges from 45 per cent in Norway to 99 per cent in France. Even countries that place primary emphasis for the care of children on families do better than Canada. In Italy, 91 per cent of children between the ages of three and six are in publicly funded childcare. In Spain, the figure is 84 per cent. In the Federal Republic of Germany, it is 78 per cent.

Time for universal daycare

Canada needs more family-friendly policies, including a policy of universal, quality daycare. The policy should be integrated with other measures, such as generous maternity and parental leaves and full-day kindergarten for all children. Parents should be able to visit schools to talk with teachers about their child's progress without being penalized by loss of pay or worse. These initiatives should be free or heavily subsidized by government. The long-term benefits will more than offset the investment.

Growing inequalities threaten Canada's social cohesion and erode the institutional supports upon which Canadians have depended in the post-Second World War period.

Much of the pressure to introduce market mechanisms in education and to diminish government's role in education, health, and social services comes from the most advantaged Canadians. Their affluence shields them from the need for social services. They are able to buy their way to the head of health-care queues and purchase educational services for their children from private providers. They do not want to see government regulation and do not want their tax dollars to go to support the public services upon which most of us depend.

Why child labour hurts poor families

British Columbia introduced changes to employment standards that reduced the minimum wage paid to first time workers for their first 500 hours of paid employment, abridged the minimum length of the workday from four to two hours, and eliminated the need for employers to seek the permission of the Director of Employment Standards to permit children under the age of 15 to work.

These changes affect the poorest and most vulnerable British Columbians. For example, making the employment of children under the age of 15 easier may look like a way to help poor families.  However, it is likely to increase a family's dependence on the earnings of younger children and heighten the pressures upon them to leave school before graduation.  Students who leave without high school completion are more likely, than graduates, to depend on social assistance, have poor health behaviours, and become involved in the criminal justice system.

In health, the government introduced the Fair PhamaCare program in an effort to reduce government spending by approximately $100 million per year.  One hundred million dollars is a trivial proportion of the total cost of health care, but it indicates government's priorities: reducing public expenditures.

When it comes to vulnerable children, the B.C. Government has initiated a program to reduce the number of children in public care by returning them to their families. The families of children-in-care need help because they are often among those under severe stress. By returning youngsters in care to relatives already struggling to cope, while retreating from policies that support parents and children, the government is setting the conditions for failure. It is unlikely that the BC Government will shoulder the blame when things go wrong.  Parents - especially women - will become scapegoats for what is really a failure of state policy.

Do we want a gated community?

Social cohesion is threatened by the persistence of inequalities. The policies being pursued in B.C. are likely to widen the gulf between the most advantaged and least advantaged British Columbians. Without strong, healthy communities, advantaged Canadians may soon be doing what their counterparts in other countries have already done: erecting compounds surrounded by razor wire to defend their privileges from the disadvantaged. If this occurs, we all will suffer the consequences.

Canadians must speak out against increasing state support for the "selfish" gene in order to maintain community. Our efforts will be well spent if we can start the next generation off on a firm foundation. We can do so by providing them and their families with the support they need to benefit from public schooling. We owe at least this much to them and to ourselves. In fact, Canada's survival as a healthy, productive nation depends upon it.

Charles Ungerleider is professor of sociology of education at the University of British Columbia and author of Failing Our Kids: How We Are Ruining our Public Schools just released in paperback by McClelland & Stewart.  [Tyee]

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