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Paul Martin is calling on all levels of government to invest in early childhood development initiatives, even in these times of fiscal restraint.
The former Prime Minister, who opened a three-day early child development conference at Mount Allison University with a passionate speech last Wednesday afternoon, said Canada can not afford to rest on its laurels when it comes to funding a child’s early years. And he said governments should not use tough economic times as justification for ignoring those needs.
“Early child development should be an essential part of any economic stimulus package,” he said. “Because more than anything else, it’s the gift that keeps on giving.”
Martin, a long-time former finance minister, said Canada will need to ensure it has an educated populace to keep up with the developing high-tech industries across the world.
“The world is about to get a heck of a lot more competitive,” he said.
Martin explained that, as Canada comes out of the current recession, it will need to compete against giants like China and India, and not just the US which will “no longer be the leading engine of growth.”
But without a comparable population to these other countries, he said Canadians will need to ensure they can compete based on their skills and innovation.
That’s why governments need to take action now, he said, because early child development is clearly the “pathway to better learning.”
“We can not afford to waste the talent of even one young Canadian.”
Martin was joined at the conference opening by New Brunswick Premier Shawn Graham, former Nova Scotia Premier John Hamm, former N.B. lieutenant governors Marilyn Trenholme Counsell and Margaret McCain (who also served as co-chairs for the conference), Fort Folly Chief Joe Knockwood and Sackville Mayor Patricia Estabrooks, along with early child development experts from around the world.
Martin admitted he was a bit surprised when McCain asked him to speak at the conference and insisted there are many others who have worked harder to make early child development a priority, particularly pointing to the research conducted in the past 30-plus years by Dr. Fraser Mustard.
“He has been a major leader in advancing this cause,” he said.
Martin, however, is also well-known for being a strong advocate for establishing an early child development network across the country. During his time in office, Martin played a key role in developing a national child care program and had agreements signed with nearly all the provincial and territorial governments before he lost the election in 2006.
“Canada had a national early learning care program,” he said. “It wasn’t fully developed by any means but it was a strong foundation on which to build.”
And despite the current government’s decision to cancel the federal program following the election, Martin told the supporters at the conference they should not give up hope that their cause will be taken up and insisted early child development needs to remain an important federal priority.
“There is no reason to be discouraged,” he said. “You need to continue doing exactly what you’re doing here . . . conferences such as this are going a long way to highlight this issue.”
Several provinces have already taken a step in the right direction, insisted Martin, including New Brunswick.
The provincial government announced earlier this year it will open four early child development centres across New Brunswick as part of a pilot program, delivering extensive programming to parents and children – including child care, drop-in programs, healthy lifestyle offerings, and more.
New Brunswick has also begun the process of implementing a brand new wide-ranging, play-based curriculum at the licensed day cares across the province.
“I think what Premier Graham has done is exactly what needs to be done. He’s taking a leadership role . . . and he’s on the right course,” said Martin.
Graham reiterated Martin’s call for action to the other provinces, saying that even while governments face hardships, “you’ve got to invest in your children.”
“To drive the economy, we need to give our children the best start in life,” he said.
“The science is critical but the way the science is explained is going to make all the difference,” said Martin.
He said ensuring children get a good start in life is one of the most important issues facing the country, particularly in a time when many families are struck by poverty.
“The time to implement them (early child programs) is when the need to strengthen our economy is greatest . . . and that time is now,” said Martin.
- reprinted from The Sackville Tribune Post