Globe and Mail

An MP's passion for families

His son's arrival helped John Godfrey to combine his academic approach with practical ideas about what parents need

The Series

Parliamentary Bureau Chief
The Globe and Mail
Saturday, September 18, 1999

Ottawa -- The kickoff to Family Matters ends today. It will be followed each Friday with a full page tracking the lives of Canadian families in Calgary, Toronto and Montreal, as well as examining other family issues.

The series will be posted daily on:

We invite readers to post their answers to this question: How is this generation of parents and children doing?
Five-year-old Ian Godfrey wants a piggyback ride to the park.

"Faster, dad, faster," he instructs Toronto-area MP John Godfrey, beating him with his fists. It's a hot day, and dad turns red and drips with sweat.

When Mr. Godfrey starts to chat about what the country's politicians can do for children, Ian tells him to shut up. He would rather discuss what he got for his birthday or the many ways in which he could kill a horse.

Mr. Godfrey, a Liberal who wants to see the federal government make a substantial investment in early-childhood development, has learned to deal with opposition, and not just from his five-year-old. After reminding Ian that telling someone to shut up is not polite, he wisely shifts the topic back to horses until they reach the playground.

Once his son heads for the swings, he can safely expound on what is known in Ottawa as the children's agenda, a vague political concept that is slowly taking shape as a key theme in the next federal budget.

The government is still feeling its way, wary of treading on provincial jurisdiction or alienating parents who fear state intervention into how their children are raised.

At this point, it seems most likely to include tax cuts for families or an expansion of the child tax benefit that now helps the working poor. A national daycare program, an idea that was floated earlier this summer, will not be part of the agenda, although more money could be made available for the provinces to invest in child care if they want.

Prime Minister Jean Chrétien is expected to add some much-needed definition in the Speech from the Throne expected next month.

But the shape of the children's agenda will be forged in the heat of the debate leading up to the next budget, which pits Liberals who want to cut taxes against those who want more social spending. The scope of the agenda could also depend on consultations that are already under way with the provinces.

If Mr. Godfrey has his way, the Liberals will decide on a comprehensive package that will include a national network of parenting centres where people can work with trained professionals to give toddlers a head-start on learning. The centres would also be places where expectant mothers could get help on prenatal nutrition, and where daycare and other services would be available.

Mr. Godfrey would also like to see the government extend leave from work for parents after they have children, deliver tax cuts for families with children and establish a children's commissioner to make sure that the new programs are actually helping kids.

The goal, according to Mr. Godfrey, would be to have all Canadian children entering the formal school system in Grade 1 ready to learn, meaning that they have had all their primary needs met and are emotionally, cognitively and physically ready for school when they start.

Many government programs for children are now aimed at families who live in poverty. Mr. Godfrey's idea is to offer a universal approach, for all families, so there is no stigma involved in seeking support.

Social programs for preschool children have fascinated Mr. Godfrey since 1990, when he began working for Fraser Mustard, a celebrated medical researcher and social scientist who has seized on education in the first few years of life as a magic bullet for Canada's social and academic woes. He pored over studies that showed how crucial the early years are to neural development.

If Mr. Godfrey is passionate about the politics of giving children a good start in life, he is even more so about being a father. A former university professor, he came to parenting late in life: He was over 50 when Ian was born and had held elected office for only a year. He and his wife, Trish, took parenting courses. He believes that while loving is intuitive, good parenting is not.

The arrival of Ian helped him marry his academic approach to more practical ideas about the kind of help Canadian parents need as they juggle jobs and family responsibilities. It also made his political agenda personal.

In Ottawa, he has become one of the most outspoken proponents for an activist children's agenda -- one that is shaped by the latest science.

While it is hard to find a politician in Ottawa who won't say children are our future, Mr. Godfrey, who chairs the Liberal caucus committee on the children's agenda, is one of the few to attempt to move beyond the flowery language to more concrete proposals.

After the budget last year, he travelled with Finance Minister Paul Martin and Health Minister Allan Rock to early-childhood-education centres to show them what he was talking about.

His crusade has met with significant opposition. Some in the party have criticized him for trying to professionalize parenting in a way that insults mothers and fathers who are now looking after their youngsters without any help.

"It is social engineering of the worst kind," Sarnia MP Roger Gallaway says.

Others say he wants a return to the free-spending ways of the 1970s, and that his proposals are too vague to warrant spending large amounts of cash. "There is an absence of well-thought, realistic options," one senior Finance Department official said.

Children are not the only priority among Liberals. Some argue that tax cuts are a must for the next budget. Others are pushing for a program to build new roads and other infrastructure and increased spending on the environment.

There is also the issue of jurisdiction. The provinces control education, health care and many social services, and some, such as Quebec, already have their own programs.

To work, a comprehensive plan would have to be a joint effort by all levels of government and would likely have to follow the framework set out in last year's social-union agreement, which Quebec did not sign.

With another referendum still a possibility, the Prime Minister's Office is not interested in getting into a turf war.

Other Liberals, especially those from Ontario, do not favour handing over money to the provinces for early-childhood development because they fear the government won't get credit for it among voters.

Child-care advocates such as Martha Friendly, a social policy researcher at the University of Toronto, argue that Canada has fallen well behind many Western European countries when it comes to early-childhood-development programs. She said Canada needs a coherent policy on families and children that includes giving parents access to better, more affordable daycare.

Childcare, or early-childhood-development services, which must be one and the same, is the glue.

Both Ms. Friendly and Mr. Godfrey argue that the children's agenda is a great way to show that Ottawa, the provinces and the municipalities can work together.

It is not social engineering, he says, because all parents would be able to make their own choices about what kind of support they need.

Mr. Godfrey maintains that a comprehensive plan could be the best way to get welfare mothers back at work, help poor children have a better life and reduce the stress of two-income families striving to find the right balance between work and home.

He believes that it would produce long-term returns on the investment, including a better-trained work force, less crime and happier citizens because children who get a good start in school have a better chance of pursuing their education and staying out of trouble. It even helps them build a better immune system, he says.

At the same time as Mr. Godfrey has been pushing his vision of a children's agenda, he has also been bringing up Ian, a redhead with an abundance of both freckles and energy.

Ian's arrival made life as an MP an increasingly difficult compromise. When the House of Commons was sitting, Mr. Godfrey was away from home four days a week, which adds up to about 90 days a year.

"What really happens is you lose track of the rhythm of the family, the triumphs, the tragedies. You are missing the beat. By the time you have figured it out, you are off again."

He did his best to strike the right balance, and missed his chance to outline his proposals at an important Liberal caucus retreat a year ago because his son was sick.

But he still felt that he was away too much.

"Eventually, I came to the point where I felt the irony was too overwhelming. Here I was advocating the well-being of children and the importance of early nurturing, and there I was being absent [from his family] to tell people about it."

So this summer, the family decided to move to Ottawa, giving up living near his constituents in order to spend more time together.

"It just would have been too awful to have sacrificed family in the cause of children," Mr. Godfrey says.


Percentage who support the initiative: "Setting up an inexpensive daycare system open to all families who want it."

Over all                78%

Percentage who support the initiative: "Financially supporting every family with children, regardless of that family's income."

Over all                32%

Percentage who support the initiative: "Extending paid parental leave for new parents to one year."

Over all                74%

Percentage who support the initiative: "Extending paid parental leave for new parents to two years."

Over all                49%

Percentage who support the initiative: "Doing everything possible to encourage one parent to stay home."

Over all                60%

Percentage who support the initiative: "Doing everything possible to encourage both parents to work for pay."

Over all                41%

The Globe and Mail / Angus Reid


Many options are being discussed within the federal government for the children's agenda. They include:

A national network of childcare and parenting centres: This idea had been put forward by experts such as Fraser Mustard and the MPs on the Liberal caucus subcommittee on the children's agenda.

The idea is to have a place in each community where all parents could drop in for a break, to get help from either professionals or other parents. Children could get the stimulation of organized activities.

They would be community-run, and could include prenatal-nutrition, daycare and other programs, depending on the need.

Until now, the focus of these programs has been low-income families or other children considered to be at risk.

A Health Department discussion paper said parenting centres could cost $1.2-billion over five years, with the costs shared between Ottawa and the provinces. Insiders are cautious about this proposal because it would require intense negotiations with the provinces and a lot of cash.

An increase in the child tax benefit: Designed to recognize the cost of raising children, the child tax benefit already costs $7-billion a year and covers more than three million families, with more money going to low-income Canadians. It also offers a supplement of $214 per child under 7 if there are no childcare expenses.

The options include adding more money to the pot so that both the working poor and welfare families get more cash in their pockets to spend on their children. Another possibility is to change the rules so that it provides significant benefits to middle-income families. Putting more money into the child tax benefit is an option favoured by senior members of the government.

Tax cuts aimed at families: The idea is to give Canadians with kids a break. The government is under pressure to also address the controversial issue of whether families in which one parent stays home are treated unfairly because they can't deduct daycare costs.

Some Liberals worry that tax cuts for stay-at-home parents would send the message that the government wants women to raise children rather than go to work. They also argue that the tax system must recognize the costs to parents, most often women, who go back to work after having children.

An increase in transfer payments: A proposed rise in transfers to the provinces would come with the provision that the money would have to be spent on early-childhood education. Some Liberals are opposed to this idea because they fear that the federal government would not get enough credit.

An increase in funding for Health Canada programs: The Community Action Program for Children, which will spend $58-million this year, funnels money to programs in local communities to help children at risk. This year, for example, it funded Breaking the Cycle, a Toronto program for pregnant women and mothers with substance-abuse problems.

A wide range of services are provided in collaboration with provincial programs, including addiction counselling, prenatal planning and postnatal support and parent relief.

It also helped establish a program at the Pine Grove Correctional Centre in Saskatchewan to allow children to visit mothers who are incarcerated and teach the women about parenting skills and child development.

The Canada Prenatal Nutrition Program provides supplements of healthy food, nutrition counselling and other services to pregnant women who are most likely to have unhealthy babies. It costs about $16-million a year.

Programs focused on preventing illness are also under consideration -- for example, encouraging more home visits by nurses to new mothers.

Changes to unemployment-insurance rules: There is talk of increasing the amount of maternity and paternity leave covered by the plan. It now allows women 15 weeks off after giving birth, and then either parent can take an additional 10 weeks.

Plans are already under way to it make it easier for working women who take time off to have kids to qualify for benefits by reducing the number of hours they have to work in order to draw benefits.

The UI system in the 1999-2000 fiscal year is expected to collect about $6-billion more than is paid out. Anne McIlroy

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