Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

A status report on our children

-- Manitoba has highest percentage of kids -- Early childhood education is critical

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Children and Youth Opportunities Minister Kevin Chief (left) visits Monday with Bernard Pollard and Rachel Thomas and their children Devin (in car), Jessica (right) and Nathan.

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Children and Youth Opportunities Minister Kevin Chief (left) visits Monday with Bernard Pollard and Rachel Thomas and their children Devin (in car), Jessica (right) and Nathan.

Manitoba has more children under 19 as a percentage of the population than elsewhere in Canada and most are from two-parent families, says a comprehensive demographic portrait of the province's children.

Our high school graduation rates are slowly rising, our teen pregnancy rates are dropping and the province is home to four times as many aboriginal kids as the national average.

On the flip side, diabetes rates, dental cavities and conditions such as attention-deficit disorder are rising.

One out of every nine children in the province is hungry and their families rely on food banks. They're also more likely to act out aggressively at a young age.

Those are some of the key findings of the Healthy Child Manitoba -- Five Year Report, to be tabled today in the legislature by Kevin Chief, minister of children and youth opportunities.

As legislated by the 2007 Healthy Child Manitoba Act, the report, which was obtained by the Free Press, offers a benchmark on how the province's children and youth are doing.

The report covers a 10-year period from 2002-2012 and it breaks down childhood status by physical and emotional health, safety and security, success at learning and their sense of social engagement and responsibility.

The biggest surprise was how big a role early childhood development and prenatal care have in future prospects for kids, Chief said in an interview Monday at a North End daycare.

"Where we actually make huge gains is when we invest in early childhood development. It's been said, but the report really brings that out," the minister said.

Since 2007, when the law passed and the Selinger government created the first cabinet committee of ministers to co-ordinate policy and programs, the province has funnelled $22.7 million into childhood development, not counting funding for pre-existing services in 2012-13.

"How to (bring out) the potential in a child, youth or a family, how you build safer and healthier communities, how you improve high school graduation rates, improve access to post-secondary education, clearly the report says it happens before a child is born. It happens at the prenatal stage," Chief said.

Manitoba offers a prenatal benefit as part of its programs for healthy child development, available to pregnant women with a family income of less than $32,000 a year. Last year, there were 3,553 referrals.

That's one reason Chief is eager to point out success when it happens. So the Lord Selkirk Park Tower on Dufferin Avenue, a family resource centre with an enriched daycare program, was a handy showcase for the report's conclusions.

Chief said the report is a good benchmark to launch a provincewide discussion.

"What I liked about the report is it said, 'It can get better, with the right intervention, the right support,' " said Chief.

Devin Pollard-Thomas, 4, his brother Nathan, 2, and sister Jessica, 1, are charter members of the Abecedarian Project and their parents say it's already paying off.

"We've noticed the difference in the children," said proud mom Rachel Thomas. "Devin reads and he counts. He knows how to read Mortimer, the whole book," she added, citing the Canadian children's classic by Robert Munsch.

"Nathan and Jessica are really social," said their dad, Bernard Pollard. "They both learned to talk here."

The report emphasizes the conclusion that by the age of five, the template for a child's future is set.

"I've been in the field for 12 years and I've seen more success in the last 12 months here than in the last 12 years. They know their numbers, their colours, the animals and different sounds. Then they go home and teach their parents," said centre supervisor Carly Sass.

alexandra.paul@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 7, 2013 A4

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Updated on Tuesday, May 7, 2013 at 8:02 AM CDT: adds photo, adds fact box

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