By Erin Schryer
Elementary Literacy Inc.
and Nicole Letourneau
University of Calgary
National Child Day has been celebrated across Canada every Nov. 20 since 1993 to commemorate the United Nations’ adoption of two documents describing children’s rights: the 1959 Declaration of the Rights of the Child and the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Unfortunately, National Child Day 2016 received very little fanfare or comment in Canada. Judging from UNICEF’s newly released Report Card 13: Fairness for Children, which measures the depths of inequality in children’s well-being across the richest countries in the world, there’s little to celebrate.
The UNICEF report card reveals how far rich countries like Canada have allowed their most disadvantaged children to fall behind the average child in health, education, income and life satisfaction. The report concludes that Canada is one of the more unequal societies for children and youth, ranking 26th of 35 rich nations.
The report makes clear that as inequality goes up, child well-being goes down.
UNICEF is not the only organization raising concern about child well-being in our country. A 2014 Canadian Institute for Health Information (CIHI) report concluded that 26 per cent of our children demonstrate developmental problems in communication, language, cognition, social-emotional or physical health by the time they reach kindergarten. Of note, 35 per cent of children in low-income neighbourhoods are prone to poor development compared with 20 per cent of children from high-income neighbourhoods.
Given that inequalities emerge early in life – and seem to persist – it’s imperative and urgent that Canada invest, develop and sustain a high-quality early child development framework.
While the federal government has committed to working with the provinces on early learning and child care, conversations are centred on additional daycare spaces and addressing daycare cost. These two accessibility factors are important, but we must remind leaders in government and the community that traditional daycare services only constitute one piece of the puzzle.
We suggest that Canada build upon the vision and words Dr. Fraser Mustard and Margaret McCain articulated in their Understanding the Early Years reports, where they describe comprehensive approaches to early childhood development, care and learning that at the core recognize, foster and support parents and families in their roles as children’s first and most influential teachers.
Their vision can be seen through the tremendous work and research conducted with early learning centres like Toronto First Duty and across several Early Childhood Development Centres in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island, where universal models for integrating child care, kindergarten, family support and other services in school-based community hubs have been implemented.
Unfortunately, many of these sites have not been sustained, or are not yet sustainable, without a national reframing of early childhood development as a critical social service worthy of our attention and investment.
To achieve better developmental outcomes for children and youth, we also need to shift our thinking to equity from equality. Equity is giving everyone what they need to be successful. Equality is treating everyone the same.
Treating everyone the same is not working for Canada’s children.
One way to bridge the widening opportunity gap is to introduce early learning centres across the country that wrap services around young families and children. The goal would be to improve family functioning, and promote healthy child development and learning prenatally and postnatally, giving children and families, particularly those with low-income, the leg up they need to be successful in school and life.
The time is now. Record numbers of children in Canada are living in poverty in spite of an all-party resolution in 1989 to end child poverty by the year 2000.
Let’s encourage policy makers to invest in, develop and sustain a high-quality early child development framework that prioritizes child and family health, development, care and learning. It’s time we addressed inequities and not simply access to affordable child care.
Erin Schryer is the executive director of Elementary Literacy Inc., a provincial non-profit organization in New Brunswick with a mission to offer and champion the development of high-quality early literacy programs and policies for ensuring more New Brunswick children learn to read early and well. Nicole Letourneau is a professor in the faculties of Nursing and Medicine. She also holds the Norlien/Alberta Children’s Hospital Foundation Chair in Parent-Infant Mental Health at the University of Calgary.