Signals from the Future
The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 9 May 2001, p. 30-41
McCain, The Hon. Margaret N., Speaker
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Early child development and the Early Years Study (EYS). Why the speaker accepted her current position as co-chair. Current concerns about childhood development in Canada. Questions to ask. Presenting a compelling case we present for action. Three pieces of evidence in the report which have propelled it forward onto the national and international stage: the SocioEconomic story, the Brain story and the Gradient Story, with a discussion of each, including facts and figures to support findings. Help that today's parents need to fulfil their roles. How the new economy has changed the roles of parents and government in the early years in particular. What must be in place for the system to work. Examples of what private individuals and foundations can do.
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9 May 2001
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The Hon. Margaret N. McCain
Former Lieutenant-Governor of New Brunswick and Co-Chair, "Early Years" Report
Chairman: Bill Laidlaw
President, The Empire Club of Canada
Head Table Guests

Anne Libby, Private Art Dealer and Director, The Empire Club of Canada; Reverend Canon Philip Bristow, Incumbent, St. Philip's on the Hill, Unionville; Sal Rabbani, Senior Student and President, W.A. Porter Collegiate Institute and President, T.D.S.B. SuperCouncil; Mary Gordon, Founder, Roots of Empathy Programme; Jane Drynan, Chairperson, Canadian Psychiatric Awareness Committee and Canadian Psychiatric Research Foundation; Ann Curran, Director, Corporate Development International and 1st Vice-President, The Empire Club of Canada; Andrea Drynan, Chairperson, Youth at Risk, Canadian Psychiatric Research Foundation; Dr. Sue Ditchburn, Principal, Havergal College; and Stanley H. Hartt, Chairman, Salomon Smith Barney Canada Inc. and Past President, Canadian Psychiatric Research Foundation.

Introduction by Bill Laidlaw

Good afternoon and welcome to the Empire Club.

I want to commence my introduction of The Honourable Margaret McCain by sharing a story with you that I experienced 25 years ago, when I commenced teaching at an independent school and had responsibility for 70 or so young men. On one of my first days I had occasion to go to the infirmary and saw more than 20 cups with little pills in them. I asked the nurse what they were and I was told it was Ritalin and that a number of my students were taking the medicine. I was also told that if they didn't, my job as a teacher and master in residence would be even more challenging than it was. That is a vision I find hard to believe.

I hope those days are over. However, as a former teacher and a parent of two teenage daughters, as well as a former human resources executive, I can tell you that mental health is a major issue for our society. I read, like you, the many sad stories of Canadians suffering from the stresses of life. I am sure that we all have a personal story of how life stresses have affected our own lives.

I think it is safe to say that when our guest speaker, The Honourable Margaret McCain, agreed in April of 1998 to co-chair the Ontario government's Early Years Study, she had no idea that it would generate so much reaction or that she would be asked to speak about the report to such a large number of groups and organisations.

Mrs. McCain has always been a social activist. Although, for more than 40 years, her home base was the small village of Florenceville, New Brunswick, where she and her husband Wallace raised four children, she made an impact on the local, national and international scene.

Always interested in the welfare of children and families, she helped establish a kindergarten programme in Florenceville and is a founding member of the Fredericton, N.B.-based Muriel McQueen Fergusson Foundation. The Foundation's mission is the elimination of family violence through public education and research in partnership with the University of New Brunswick.

On April 28, 1994, Margaret McCain was appointed LieutenantGovernor of New Brunswick--the first female to hold this position. She served until April 1997 when she moved to Toronto to rejoin her family.

She is Chair of the National Ballet School's Board of Directors. She also serves on a number of other boards including the Women's College Hospital Foundation, Voices for Children, Beatrice House, the Advisory Council for the Canadian Women's Foundation and York University's Centre for Women's Studies.

Today, she is helping the Canadian Psychiatric Research Foundation launch a project to help teachers work more effectively with troubled children in their classes.

Now with great pleasure I present to you The Honourable Margaret McCain.

Margaret McCain

Thank you for inviting me to be your guest speaker today. I appreciate the opportunity you have given me to talk about early child development and the Early Years Study (EYS) with a group of people who are community leaders and decision makers.

Soon after I moved to Toronto, I was invited by the then Minister for Children, Margaret Marland, to join Dr. Fraser Mustard as Co-Chair of the EYS newly commissioned by Premier Harris.

I accepted without hesitation and I'll explain why. There were two basic reasons. Having been a long-time advocate for the healthy development of children I knew this was a ground-breaking initiative. I considered the opportunity to work with Dr. Mustard a privilege and an experience not to be missed.

Many of you already know that Dr. Mustard is a worldrenowned medical researcher and expert in human development. Without his breadth of knowledge along with his extensive international network of researchers, the Early Years Report (EYR) would not have achieved its high level of strength and credibility.

It was in fact a lecture he gave on human development to the caucus of the Harris government that spawned the EYS. Following the presentation, Premier Harris asked what he could do to help Ontario's children. Dr. Mustard replied: "Lay the foundations to make sure that all children get off to the best possible start so that in their adult life they can reach their optimal potential to be productive citizens." The Premier took his advice seriously. ,

There has been increasing concern about the fact that Canadian children are not doing as well as they should. Despite spending more on primary, secondary and postsecondary education than any other industrialised country, Canada ranks near the bottom on OECD youth literacy scores, only slightly above the U.S.

In 1997 the National Longitudinal Survey on Children and Youth reported that 26 per cent of our children enter adulthood with significant academic, behavioural, social and/or health problems. Without intense interventions this percentage will increase exponentially with each successive generation.

Another area of serious concern is the level of youth aggression and crime which is alarmingly high. This is a problem that can be traced directly back to early life experiences.

Countries showing much better children's outcomes, such as Sweden, Denmark and France, invest heavily in the first six years. Here in Canada, we invest very little in the early years.

We acknowledge that there have been many other studies carried out over the past 40 years which focused on the developmental needs of children and which presented recommendations similar to ours. Most of them are now gathering dust on shelves in government archives. What sets this report apart from all others? Why is it being taken so seriously in Canada that it set the framework for the federal government's designation of $2.5 billion over five years to flow to the provinces for early child development?

When the first ministers signed the health agreement last September, Canada became the first English-speaking country to include a prevention piece in a major health plan. This is very significant. And why have copies of the EYR travelled all around the world as far away as Australia; why has it formed the framework for initiatives in B.C., Manitoba and PEI; why is the World Bank using it as a basis for early child development initiatives being introduced into developing countries?

The answer to these questions lies not so much in what we recommend but in the compelling case we present for action.

There are three pieces of evidence in the report which have propelled it forward onto the national and international stage: the current socio-economic environment driven by technology; new neuro-science evidence about brain development; and new evidence of children's outcomes measured against their socio-economic status.

Together these three, which we refer to as the SocioEconomic story, the Brain story and the Gradient Story, send out a loud wake-up call to society; a call that we ignore at our own peril.

First, the Socio-Economic story, more specifically its impact on children and families.

As with economic revolutions throughout history, so it is that the new economy, driven by technology, has brought about massive change and dislocation of our social structures. Families have been particularly affected.

John Maynard Keynes, the renowned economist of the last century, predicted during the Great Depression that by the year 2030 people would be far better off materially while having to work much less.

He got the first part right but on the second point, his prediction was totally wrong.

In the beginning of the Technological Age it was expected that computers and other technologies would dramatically ease the burden on human performance. Instead the opposite has happened. While devices such as computers, faxes, e-mail, voice mail and cellphones have vastly increased productivity, they have also resulted in a much higher demand for products and information which have to be produced better, faster and cheaper. Workers today have to work harder, longer and much more intensely in order to stay ahead of the competition.

This applies to men and women at all levels. The higher up you go on the income scale the harder and longer you have to work and the greater the pressure you face to compete in the global marketplace. At the same time, people in what are considered routine jobs have to work longer and harder in order to stay employed, to stay above the poverty line and to maintain the standard of living they knew 10, 20 or 30 years ago.

The Vanier Institute for the Family recently reported that men and women today have to work 60 hours a week to maintain the same standard of living enjoyed by people in the 1950s who worked only 40 hours a week.

Workers today can never go into cruising mode, relax or feel comfortable in the knowledge that their job or career is secure.

Women are in the work force in increasing numbers. Some are there to supplement their spouse's shrinking income or to provide enrichment for their children's development--culture, recreation, sports, travel. Other women are in the work force because of the rewards and benefits. They cherish their financial independence.

Success today is no longer predicated on strength and endurance but rather on knowledge, skills and innovation and in these areas women bring a wealth of talent and capability.

Yes, women are in the work force to stay. Sixty-five per cent of mothers with pre-school children are in the work force and many parents are away from home up to 12 hours a day. Even when they are at home they are still connected to the office because technology has blurred the lines between the workplace and home.

Work has invaded the sanctity of home and family life, intruding on relationships with spouses, children and friends.

Never before have parents been so stressed and stretched as they strive to be the best in the workplace and the best at home. This situation has added a new phrase to the lexicon of family life-family time famine. One of the greatest concerns expressed to us by parents during the EYS was the challenge of finding a balance between work and family. There is no shortage of information on "how to be a good parent." The challenge is how do you find time to be a good parent.

Productivity driven by innovation is a key force in the Technological Age. It follows, therefore, that how our children develop into competent, productive, innovative members of our future work force is of critical importance both for individual and national success.

Let me quote to you from the book "Developmental Health and the Wealth of Nations" written by Dr. Dan Keating of the University of Toronto and Dr. Clyde Hertzman of UBC. The authors state categorically "economic growth today is dependent on becoming a learning society built on the developmental health of its population. The role of developmental health is critical to lifelong health, learning and competence. Learning societies focus on promoting developmental health and making use of human resources to achieve success as a knowledge economy and a democratic society."

When does human development begin? It begins at birth--indeed at conception.

Into this view of the modern socio-economic landscape, let me now place the new Neuro Science story. It has been called the most powerful, compelling piece of medical evidence ever to emerge about human development.

Up until 10 or 15 years ago it was believed that a baby's brain architecture was set at birth by his or her genetic programming and that early experiences merely set the context for a child's development. However, using new technologies such as cat scans and MRIs, coupled with major longitudinal studies in developmental psychology, medical scientists are now able to prove that this is not the case. A baby is born with billions of neurons which will, over the next three to four years, form connections (called synapses) to form eight neural pathways. This happens in response to stimulation from touch, taste, sight, sound, smell, temperature, movement and pain.

We call the process "the wiring of the brain" and it is very much influenced by experiences.

Positive stimulation from good nutrition and nurturance such as, touching, cuddling, singing and exploring will enhance the wiring process. Reading is especially important because it stimulates five of eight neural pathways.

On the other side of the coin, negative stimulation that comes from neglect, lack of attention, poor nutrition, living with fear, stress, anxiety or abuse (either direct or indirect from witnessing) can impede the optimal wiring process.

Although brain development is non-linear and will continue throughout life, the windows of opportunity for optimal development are in these critical early years. It is in these years that the foundation blocks are laid for learning, health and behaviour throughout the life cycle. If the opportunities for positive stimulation, nurturance and nutrition are missed, doors will be shut that can never be reopened.

Interventions to address the latency effects of negative early experiences or deficits can, and often do, help. The Canadian Psychiatric Awareness Project, which is providing teachers with knowledge and skills to deal with children who come into their classrooms with behavioural difficulties resulting from early childhood deficits or mental health problems, is an excellent example of what is being done to help children and their families. But it has to be acknowledged that later interventions are much more difficult and much more expensive.

Studies tell us that the single biggest factor in a child's healthy development is the quality of parenting.

This presents us with a paradox. In the Technological Age, when human development and productivity is considered critical to individual and national success and parenting has been identified as the most important factor in human development, the new economy is placing heavier and heavier burdens on parents to fulfil their role.

The third piece of evidence--the Gradient storyshows that all parents are faced with this challenge and all children are affected.

Gradients give us a reading of outcomes (in this case, children's outcomes) on several significant indicators such as low birth weights, cognitive skills and developmental levels measured against their socio-economic status.

It is commonly believed that children who exhibit the greatest difficulties are those living in poverty and it is true that these children do have the highest risk factors. Thirty-five per cent of children in the lowest-income quartile are having difficulty. However, we have to consider the other piece of the story--65 per cent are turning out well.

At the other end of the spectrum, in the highestincome quartile, 21 per cent of children are doing poorly. And the largest number of children not doing well is in the middle class.

These results are surprising to many people, especially to politicians and policy-makers who prefer to "target" their initiatives towards those they define as "at risk."

The important thing to remember about the Gradient story is that there is no point on the scale where putting more money towards the problem will eliminate it.

Dr. Dan Offord is Director of the Centre for Study of Children at Risk at McMaster University, where they are doing exceptional research into children's developmental needs. The centre has designed an early development index and is implementing it here in Toronto and across Canada. Dr. Offord says that adding money alone will only reduce the problems for children living in poverty by 10 per cent. If money alone provided the solution (which it doesn't) all children in the lowest-income bracket would be doing poorly and those from well-off families would be doing well. That is not the case.

Today's parents need help in fulfilling their role but money alone, education and parenting information alone, nutrition and environmental programmes alone, literacy programmes alone will not significantly improve children's outcomes.

Measures such as these must be partnered with other initiatives designed to address the needs of all children and their parents.

Given that the Technological Age is here to stay with its increasingly severe effects on families and children, given that the healthy development of children is very important to the health and wealth of our nation, given that the neuro-science evidence tells us how important the early years are in laying the foundations for healthy development, with good parenting the primary factor, the EYR lays out a plan for an Early Child Development (ECD) system to support all children in the years zero to six and their parents.

So far, Canada's investment in children has focused primarily on the years six to 18 with very little invested in the early years. In the past it was, and still is, widely believed that the early years are the sole responsibility of parents, not society. The new economy has changed that.

The ECD System we envision would feature an integrated continuum of ECD and Parenting Centres which are child-oriented and parent-oriented. They would include child care and education based on problem-solving learning through play. They would also include parenting education and supports with additional resources available to meet the needs of parents at work, at home or in school.

The system must be available, affordable, accessible and optional to all parents and children. Yet, rather than universal public funding, we recommend that the system should be developed by public/private partnerships.

We believe the system must grow from the grass roots up with communities taking ownership of human development within an "over-arching umbrella" of government policies, principles and standards.

Because of modern-day workplace pressures, the corporate/employer world will need to come in as partners; adopting family-friendly policies, flexible work hours, possibly even on-site ECD centres. We recommended the extension of maternity/parental leave to one year and we were pleased when the federal government and four provincial governments (including Ontario) recently introduced this into legislation.

Communities must be important partners in the development of the ECD system. Various sectors will have to come together to build bridges and partnerships to support children and families. The nature and quality of a community play an important role in how children develop.

Already we have outstanding examples of what private individuals and foundations can do. The Bram and Bluma Appel initiative for children in North Bay which includes a broad range of after-school and arts programmes is one such fine example. The Atkinson Foundation's $1 million challenge fund to match community ECD initiatives is another.

Before I close, let me stress that ensuring children get off to a good start in life so that they can attain their optimal potential and competence is important not only to the individual child or family but to the whole of society. Whether you are a parent, grandparent, employer or a business person, regardless of your profession, it is in your interest (and mine) to ensure the competency of our future labour force. It is also in our national interest to make sure that communities assume responsibility for a system to support early child development and to help parents fulfil their parental role.

Foundation blocks laid in the early years determine how children will function throughout their life cycles. Unless we are prepared to provide this firm foundation, society will continue to pay a higher and higher price. The resulting deficits will continue to translate into enormous human and economic costs.

Hilary Clinton said that it takes a village to raise a child. I prefer to say that it takes a community. I urge you to join with others to take "ownership" of human development. As Judith Maxwell, President of Canadian Policy Networks, told the Globe and Mail in February of last year: "One of the best investments we can make in strong productivity growth after 2020 will be in supporting the healthy development of all children starting now"

The appreciation of the meeting was expressed by Stanley H. Hartt, Chairman, Salomon Smith Barney Canada Inc. and Past President, Canadian Psychiatric Research Foundation.

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Signals from the Future

Early child development and the Early Years Study (EYS). Why the speaker accepted her current position as co-chair. Current concerns about childhood development in Canada. Questions to ask. Presenting a compelling case we present for action. Three pieces of evidence in the report which have propelled it forward onto the national and international stage: the SocioEconomic story, the Brain story and the Gradient Story, with a discussion of each, including facts and figures to support findings. Help that today's parents need to fulfil their roles. How the new economy has changed the roles of parents and government in the early years in particular. What must be in place for the system to work. Examples of what private individuals and foundations can do.