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Giving kids a chance for a better life

NDP seeks program advice

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Instead of repeating family patterns of poverty, addiction and dependence, single mom Kirsten Touchette, who is M©tis, is forging new ground and protecting Manitoba's most promising natural resource -- growing brains.

The province has one of the youngest and fastest-growing populations in Canada due to the aboriginal community, which is growing four times more quickly than the population as a whole. The potential human-resource boon to the economy could go bust if there's not some early investment in very young kids -- many of whom are born into poverty, warned Kevin Chief, the minister of children and youth and opportunities.

"If we want to maximize potential, it has to start at the prenatal stage," Chief told representatives of aboriginal groups, health care, social agencies, business, schools and volunteers Wednesday, announcing strategy sessions to get early-childhood-development programs to those who need them. He rallied them to use their networks and find ways to reach out to those who don't know about programs or are afraid to ask for help.

"We have services and resources and vulnerable people with traumatic backgrounds are hard to reach," he said.

'If we want to maximize potential, it has to start at the prenatal stage'

-- Kevin Chief, minister of children and youth and opportunities

Touchette was reached nine years ago when she was on assistance, alone and expecting her first child, Ariana. She tapped into a raft of provincial programs -- from the prenatal Healthy Baby income supplement to enriched daycare, where her two-year-old, Emilee, was speaking by the age of nine months. By the time she's five, Emilee's chances of finishing high school and getting a decent job will have nearly doubled, research suggests.

Early-childhood investments get more bang for their buck than program dollars spent later on, said Chief. When the minister with a new portfolio set out to improve high school graduation rates, he focused on intervention. He discovered that what happens to kids before Grade 1 played more of a role in determining whether they made it to Grade 12.

"I didn't know or have the facts," said Chief, an aboriginal raised in poverty by a dad who died of alcoholism at 63.

One major long-term study in the U.S. -- the High/Scope Perry Preschool study -- tracked the short- and long-term effects of a high-quality preschool education program for three- and four-year-olds living in poverty to the time they were 40. Their IQ scores at age five were higher, they had better attitudes about education as teens, more graduated from high school and more at age 40 were employed, owned a car and used fewer social services than others from the same background who weren't in a program. "The future is literally something we can change right now," said Rob Santos, a researcher with Healthy Child Manitoba. For every dollar invested in early-childhood education, taxpayers save $17 later in life on the social costs associated with poverty, including health care, welfare and crime, he said. The early years involve the most brain growth and development and have the biggest effect on later life, Santos said.

Kids with neglectful, depressed, addicted or abused parents who miss out on early brain development will start Grade 1 behind their peers and have little chance of making it to Grade 12, said Chief. Early-childhood programs can put them on an equal footing, giving them a better chance of graduating from high school, he said.

When that happens, everyone wins, said Chief, who's meeting groups across the province to devise a plan for getting the help to youngsters who need it by Nov. 20, International Children's Day.

A Centre for the Study of Living Standards report in 2010 said closing the education and employment-achievement gap between aboriginal and other Canadians would save more than $115 billion over 15 years while adding more than $401 billion to Canada's gross domestic product.

By 2017, a projected one in four Manitobans will be aboriginal.

"Our community's prosperity depends on the health and well-being of the next generation," said Dave Angus, president of the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce.

He was invited to the meeting by Chief and said the business community knows what's at stake.

"Investment in the early childhood years is the best opportunity to change the trajectory," he said.

carol.sanders@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 4, 2013 A3

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Updated on Thursday, July 4, 2013 at 8:02 AM CDT: replaces photo, adds fact box

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