To Build a “Strong, Fair Canada Built for Change” We Need Strong, Fair Childhoods Built for Change
Canada aspires to be an innovation nation, a focus of the commercial and social investments in Federal Budget 2017. It’s a vision to create better livelihoods and an economy that thrives in a rapidly changing world. To get there, we have to create the conditions in which our children and youth develop, learn, adapt and continue what they are great at - innovation. But we have big gaps to fill with smarter policies, services and investments to boost lagging child well-being outcomes. The Canada Child Benefit is a big step forward. We won’t get there without shifting investment earlier in children’s lives to support healthy development, reducing remedial costs down the road. And we will be swimming hard upstream unless we do more to address broad income and social inequality, a dampening influence on overall well-being.
Budget 2017 takes us a few steps forward. Children will benefit from investments in social infrastructure, environmental protection and gender inequality. More details about how the money will be used are needed to assess their likely impacts. Forthcoming national strategies in poverty reduction and for early learning and child care are promising – taking a universal approach in these two policy imperatives achieves great outcomes for children in other countries. Filling in the potholes to achieve a more comprehensive and coherent framework of policies affecting children would help to ensure these investments achieve their intended impacts and close gaps that leave some children behind.
WHAT’S NEW FOR CHILDREN AND YOUTH?
Early Learning and Child Care: The addition of $7 billion over 10 years, aiming for the universal minimum standard of 1% of GDP, provides a strong start toward a national system of support for early learning and child care. It is expected to create 40,000 new child care spaces. The number of spaces available should match the number who need it and evolve based on a universal right to quality child care, rather than an estimate. In addition to the focus on affordability so mothers can return to work, CCRC advocates for a child-centred approach that focuses on quality. Without that, we won’t see the positive outcomes for children that the best performing countries achieve for the investments they are making.
Parental Leave: The option for a longer period of parental leave will help some families juggle paid employment and child rearing. The proposed changes enable mothers working in risky employment to access leave benefits while extending the period of leave for the first eighteen months of a child’s life. Extended leave can support the critical period for bonding and breastfeeding and allow flexibility to address children’s developmental needs and challenges. However, a reduced rate of 33% rather than 55% remuneration limits the potential benefits. Whether the levels of support are adequate to allow parents, particularly lower-income earners and those in non-standard work, to use that option remains to be seen. CCRC advocates for remuneration to at least the current EI standard for the full duration of leave, bringing Canada closer to the policies in other affluent nations.
Affordable Housing: Progress on the national housing strategy is reflected in the proposed investments in affordable housing. It is not clear how much of the $11 billion will be allocated to families with children. CCRC advocates for a child-sensitive lens on affordable housing measures including access to and the design of social housing; portable housing benefits to enable children to grow up in safe, healthy communities; and a youth focus to reduce homelessness with more pathways to housing and supportive services.
Indigenous Children: Budget 2017 includes funds for a range of services, from water, housing, and education to restorative justice, indigenous languages, Métis governing capacity, and a center in the PCO to address the larger systemic issues involved in building a new nation-to-nation relationship with indigenous peoples across Canada. More detailed analysis and a strong focus on outcomes will be needed to assess the potential impact for children. In the meantime, the Federal Government should accelerate progress to implement Jordan’s Principle and ensure no First Nations children experience delays or denials in accessing basic services to which other children are entitled.
Youth Skills Training: The budget includes a number of initiatives to assist young people in learning and making the transition from schools to the workplace, including support for at-risk youth, workplace training and improved Internet access for low-income families. In addition to a focus on helping young people enter the labour market, more innovative approaches are needed to change the labour market. The Federal Government could incentivize the private sector to create better employment opportunities for youth, to share the profits of the steady growth in GDP. At the same time, CCRC advocates for stronger measures to protect the health, safety, and rights of young people in the workplace, beyond the attention given to unpaid internships for older youth.
Violence Prevention: The budget provides $100 million for five years and $20 million each year after to fund the emerging gender-based violence strategy. CCRC has advocated for including a strong focus on implementing Article 19 of the Convention, which states that children have a right to be free from all forms of violence. Canada has high rates of bullying, child maltreatment and child homicide, borne by both girls and boys, as well as specific forms of violence experienced disproportionately due to gender or gender identity. We await the release of the strategy to determine how it will affect children.
Maintenance Payments and the Family Justice System: Investment to help enforce maintenance payments responds to a recommendation in the last CCRC review of children’s rights in Canada, which showed that a large percentage of children grow up without the intended support after divorce. Funding for improvements in the family justice system is welcome; hopefully the rights of children will be a strong focus.
The Budget’s attention to important gaps in the child and youth policy framework is welcome, to build a society that develops the full potential of every child and bring Canada closer to the great outcomes achieved by other countries who have led the way with proven results. But to take our place among top-performing nations economically and in the well-being of Canadians, we need to ensure these measures are included:
Child Development: No country with a thriving economy and thriving children neglects the early years to the extent Canada has done. While child care and parental benefits are critical thrusts, a more holistic approach to early child development is absolutely crucial to achieve good outcomes. In Federal-Provincial health agreements, a set of minimum standards for early child health and development services to support cognitive and social milestones, child health and breastfeeding should be considered, and a more universal approach to the Community Action Program for Children.
Food Security: The budget focuses on agri-food investments for marketing Canada’s produce. It does not include a food security strategy, a commitment made by the Government after the election. Access to nutritious, affordable food for every child remains an unfulfilled right. Protecting children from advertising of unhealthy foods could be part of an effective food security strategy. Canada remains one of the only industrialized countries without a national school food program, a proven way to support a range of good health and learning outcomes. The Federal Government should lead a cost-shared Universal Healthy School Food Program to serve a daily healthy meal or snack.
Child Rights Impact Assessments and A Children’s Budget: Budget 2017 takes an important step by including a gender-based analysis for the first time. Further development will improve future budgets and policy decisions. Budget 2017 also highlights the need for a more systematic approach for identifying the impact of specific initiatives for children and ensuring maximum benefit from investments. The CCRC continues to advocate for the use of Child Rights Impact Assessments at both the national and sub-national levels of government to help ensure that the many policies that impact children add up to measurable progress and avoid negative or unintended consequences.
A Commissioner for Children and Youth: Budget 2017 illustrates the complexity of making investments that have big implications for the context in which children grow up in Canada without a locus in government to help ensure they work well together and are good for children. The avoidable reality is that some children and some essential steps for healthy child development fall through the cracks. The benefits of having a Children’s advocate that focuses on children and youth – a quarter of Canada’s population - and pulls the pieces together from a child’s perspective would far outweigh the small cost of the office.
Kathy Vandergrift and Lisa Wolff for the Canadian Coalition for the Rights of Children March 2017