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Investment in child care pays big dividends later, Quebec expert contends

Head of Quebec group shares lessons from that province's $5-a-day childcare policy

SUPPLIED</p><p>Louis Senécal, Quebec Childcare Association CEO, urges a national childcare program be instituted.</p>

SUPPLIED

Louis Senécal, Quebec Childcare Association CEO, urges a national childcare program be instituted.

The world is changing so quickly, technology experts say, most of the jobs that one day will be held by today’s Canadian preschoolers don’t even exist yet.

That’s why Canada needs to start providing free, universal childhood education for everyone under five, the head of the Quebec Childcare Association says. Louis Senécal was in Winnipeg this week sharing lessons he has learned from Quebec’s $5-a-day childcare policy, established 20 years ago.

"You need to invest in the capacity of children to be able to adapt to a world that is changing so quickly," Senécal said. That was a finding of the Early Childhood Education Commission that travelled across Quebec to assess the Family Policy, rolled out in 1997.

"Many spots were created and there was a lot of investment," said Senécal, a lawyer and father of four. That investment paid off in the short term. More parents working and paying income tax meant a $1.75 return for every $1 the government invested, he said. What would have made it a better long-term investment is if all those spaces had included the services of qualified early childhood educators, he added.

"At some point, the children were not always provided with services that are high-quality," he said. "All the experts are saying 85 per cent of the brain is developed by the time we’re four years old. Zero to four is a very important period of time."

Senécal is drumming up support for a Canada-wide child-care policy that puts education front and centre.

That’s not a foreign concept in Manitoba. In the 2015 Throne Speech, the previous NDP government said it would follow the Manitoba Early Learning and Child Care Commission’s recommendation to create 12,000 new "early learning and child care" spaces. The ambitious plan would require a major investment and was shelved when the Progressive Conservatives came to power in 2016. With 15,000 names on the waiting list for child care in Manitoba, advocates aren’t sure what — if anything — the new provincial government will do about the lack of spaces.

"There’s absolutely no planning," said University of Manitoba Prof. Susan Prentice, who belongs to the Child Care Coalition of Manitoba. "It’s a completely reactive system."

Prentice was a new mom when Quebec rolled out its $5-a-day childcare program 20 years ago.

"I was jealous as hell. I could not find a daycare centre." She said she put her name a waiting list before she was pregnant but didn’t get her daughter into a daycare until she turned four.

"As a sociologist, I was delighted" by the Quebec program, Prentice added. "When you’re supporting families, a cascade of good effects will follow. Quebec has slashed its child poverty rate by 50 per cent."

Some changes to Quebec’s child-care policy over the years have been "less than optimal," she said. The $5-a-day charge rose to $7 then to $20. "More recent conservative governments have lost sight of the larger purpose of the program," she said, noting there is "solid economic analysis that Quebec more than recoups the cost of its program."

The "family policy" is part of the Quebec notion of nation-building by taking care of families, Prentice contends.

"In the rest of Canada, there’s a concerted attack on collective services and this is a big lie — that if we all have more money in our pockets, everyone does better," she said. "That’s profoundly wrong and it has actively harmed children and families and I think we need to remind ourselves how, collectively, we can provide for things no one can do alone, like good health care, education and child care."

With a federal minister for Families Children and Social Development appointed to work towards delivering affordable, high-quality, flexible and fully inclusive child care, Senécal said groups across the country need to push for a policy that ensures child care equips kids for a healthy future.

"The education of a child should be a priority everywhere," said Senécal.

carol.sanders@freepress.mb.ca

Read more by Carol Sanders.

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