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Wednesday, October 06, 1999

Will Ottawa save the children?
Today's debate focuses on a national children's agenda. Ottawa wants one but its critics ask if it is prepared to cut taxes and acknowledge provincial jurisdiction
National Post

NDP: Libby Davies

The Canadian Press
LIBERALS: John Godfrey

BLOC: Christiane Gagnon

TORIES: Diane St-Jacques

REFORM: Reed Elley

The Chretien government is expected to make the "children's agenda" one of it top priorities in its Throne Speech next week, a speech that will set out its legislative action-plan for the next two years. But what exactly is the children's agenda? Stripped down to basics, it is the groping effort by federal and provincial governments to co-ordinate their programs and services for families with the aim of improving the lot of the nation's children. Advocates claim that today as many as one-in-five Canadian children suffer from poverty, health and development problems that will damage their potential as adults -- with potentially huge medical, welfare and justice system costs for society in future decades. Do the political parties agree on this diagnosis? What are the solutions? And, if there are solutions, what is the role of the federal government, given that dealing with social problems is primarily the responsibility of the provinces.

Giles Gherson, National Post political editor: Should the federal government be playing a role, with new programs and services, in helping parents provide brighter futures for their children? Is there a national responsibility here, or is it meddling in provincial territory?

Christiane Gagnon, Quebec (Bloc Quebecois): I think the government is failing to look at the actual causes of what makes people poorer. I think all the federal budget cuts to social programs have increased poverty. Unemployment insurance has also been made very, very hard to get. They find the situation disastrous but they made that situation. I think now the federal government has to work with the provinces who are responsible for health, education and income security. I think the federal government created a big problem for the provinces, and so now they ought to give back the money to the provinces. And if we have children who are poor that means we have parents who are poor. I think the government forgot that when they cut the transfers to the provinces. They had so many cuts, including social housing. As for a children's agenda, it's very hard to make a national program and get all the provinces to agree on it. Remember the childcare program. The Liberal Party said in 1993 that they will create childcare places. They didn't know how to do it.

Diane St-Jacques, Shefford (PC): I think the best way to help our children is through the parents. I think they are better placed to help the most fragile members of our society. We had a party task force on poverty that traveled around Canada during the spring and summer. And we heard from many Canadians, many poor people. Following these consultations, we believe that the children's agenda should focus on the family. Middle class families as well as poor ones. They need help, especially when it comes to taxes. Statistics Canada revealed that for Canadian families from 1992 to 1997, personal income taxes as a percentage of family expenditures increased by 15%. They said that the average Canadian family now spends more on just income tax than on food, clothing and household operations. I think it's very important to look at that, to give money to the parents. I think they are much better placed to help their kids. And I think we have to transfer payments to the provinces and territories. I think they are better placed to help out children and the family.

Libby Davies, Vancouver East (NDP): Children and families simply can't wait any longer. Let's not forget that it was in 1989, almost 10 years ago, that the House of Commons unanimously passed a resolution to eliminate child poverty. What's happened since then is that poverty in Canada has now increased by 49%. In 1993, the Liberal Red Book promised us 150,000 new childcare spaces. What's happened is that less than 10% of kids in need of child care have access to regulated spaces. The so-called National Children's Agenda, which is a good document, is very long on promises but very short on action. The critical issue is whether the federal government is committed to delivering concrete programs. In the NDP we're basically calling for four things: a national strategy for children's programs across the country; an expansion of maternity and parental leave because it's been very difficult for women to get back in the workforce --they're really undermined by the cuts in the EI system; an expansion of the national child benefit, because it doesn't extend to people on welfare; and finally, a housing strategy. Without housing, very little else can be done. So those are the four tests that we think are critical if this National Children's Agenda actually is worth more than the paper it's written on.

Reed Elley, Nanaimo (Reform): I'd like to say from personal experience that my wife and I have fostered over 140 children in the last 25 years. The basic reason those children were committed to care was that they had parents who had poor health, parents who had no jobs or on social assistance, and they had lack of parenting skills. So if the government really wants to promote healthy children, they have to promote healthy parents. And that's the Reform idea. What should the government do? Lower taxes. Take those people who are making under $20,000 -- and which as a group pay $6-billion in taxes -- off the tax rolls. Provide a good education for them through the Canada Health and Safety Transfer. And of course, good health, which is just absolutely necessary if we're going to have healthy parents and healthy children. The federal government has to then restore the federal transfer payments to the provinces. They originally said it would pay 50% -- a dollar to a dollar -- now it's down to 9.4%. If the federal government really wants to get involved in the lives children, let's not just tackle the symptoms through national programs. Let's really go to the root of the problem and help parents.

John Godfrey, Don Valley West (Liberal): I think what unites us all is the view that there's two components to the problem: one is the income side; and the other is the service side. The income side has at least three components, and I think Libby mentioned them. First, we do have to focus on working Canadians who are at the low end of the income scale, and that means increasing the national child benefit to put it up into the income range of average Canadians. Secondly, I think that extending maternity benefits and parental leave beyond the current 25 weeks, heading towards a year, which is something that Quebec has been asking for, would be a hugely important step. Thirdly, on the income side, we've got to do something to be more supportive of all families with young children whether the parents choose to work inside the home or out. The federal government can do that. But the most challenging part is on the service side, where we need to support the provinces and communities in establishing early childhood development centres which would provide many of the parenting skills to which Reed alluded. But it would also provide childcare, it would provide respite care, it would focus on the health of communities ... In other words there would be one place in the community where everyone, not just poor folks, could come with their children for support. That's going to be the tricky part because it involves respectful negotiation with the provinces.

Ms. Gagnon: I think that the Liberal government now realizes all the problems they created by cutting the social transfers to Canadians. And the way they want to act is to replace the provinces. That's the wrong way to do it. I think they have to increase the autonomy of the provinces instead of trying to replace them. For example I think that it's very hard for Quebec which put its family strategy in place but the money was not there. The provinces provide the services, not the federal government. There has to be stable financial help for homegrown provincial services. I worry that they will just put up some short term money and then leave the problem alone as they've done over the past six years. We have to be efficient, and efficiency comes when the service is done by the province. And if the federal government starts duplicating programs that exist in other jurisdictions, I think that will be wrong. The cost of the administration will be high, the competence level won't be high and the money won't go to the people.

Mr. Gherson: Ms. St-Jacques, do you agree that we'll end up with a large interprovincial battle here if the federal government tries to move forward on more than the income front?

Ms. St-Jacques: Well, we agree on the need to extend the child tax benefit for the middle class. But also I think the government has to look at indexing the tax system so that inflation doesn't impoverish Canadian families anymore. Also like Christiane, and as I said before, I think we have to increase transfer payments to the provinces and the territories too. We also need to reduce personal income tax, because parents would rather spend money on their children than on the state or the bureaucrats.

Mr. Gherson: Mr. Godfrey, you talked about providing support to families with children through the tax system. Did you mean more than the child tax benefit?

Mr. Godfrey: Yes I was making a distinction between the National Child benefit system and the income tax structure, which I think ought to be friendlier and more supportive of families with dependent children wherever their income.

Mr. Gherson: Ms. St-Jacques, do you agree with that?

Ms. St-Jacques: Yes. There's no recognition of children in the present system, apart from child care spending on children, everything is after tax dollars. And if you compare that to a farmer, his expenses are deductible like the cost of food or shelter or other necessities.

Ms. Davies: Just to pick up on your question about the program side, this is another test for the social union. What we really need to see is leadership by the federal government to work with the provinces to develop national strategies around early childhood development and services. We need an infusion of federal funds. A lot of the groups that I talk to are saying that what they want to see in the upcoming Throne Speech and budget is a commitment of a minimum of $2-billion for an early childhood development program. And yes it does need to be delivered by the provinces, it needs to be flexible, it needs to respond to the different situations. I think we can learn a lot from the Quebec model that has been very successful.

Ms. St-Jacques: I agree with Libby but I think also we have to put more money in the hands of the parents too, with income tax cuts. We have to do both I think.

Mr. Elley: I want to say that I really agree with Christiane on this issue of provincial-federal jurisdictions. Once the federal government starts to talk about national daycare programs, it makes a lot of people very antsy. I think that we have to respect the provincial jurisdiction; they are the closest government, outside municipal, to the problems that are going on in our country. They are the best deliverer of services and we have to give them the responsibility for this. The federal government, through the tax system, can provide the money. So let them do that, but let the provincial government do the job.

Mr. Godfrey: I think we can reconcile almost all of these ideas if we, at the federal level, were to establish an early childhood development services fund -- whether it's $500-million or whether it's $2-billion -- which we then negotiated the use of through the children's agenda process, with common vision established by the federal government with the provinces and territories. Quebec is actually the best province in the country in terms of supporting families with young children, through things like $5-a-day daycare and so on. The social union says, and this is would overcome Christiane's objection, you can reward the pioneers for their efforts by giving them more money to go further ahead, and recognizing their pioneering role. So Quebec would not be encumbered in pushing further ahead faster on its family policy. The rest of us who are lagging behind could then come along as was the case in the '60s with Saskatchewan leading us all in public health insurance, with the federal government saying that's a great model. That's the beauty of Confederation. So I think we can move forward on early childhood, respecting provincial jurisdiction, but also relying on communities to establish their own priorities in this area.

Ms. Gagnon: Yes we have a great model in Quebec. But we don't have the support of money from the federal government. And I think the money for daycare should be given to Quebec without making a national program. If we have to wait until the federal government gets a consensus before giving the money, we'll wait a long time.

Ms. St-Jacques: I think that the solution will rest with the strengthening of the family unit through lower taxes. We also need better co-operation between Ottawa and the provinces and territories.

Ms. Davies: I think that such a program, an early childhood development fund, a national childcare strategy, is entirely possible. I think we're at a very critical point right now. A lot of the childcare advocacy groups and anti-poverty advocacy groups and experts have showed us time and time again huge society benefits to having such a program established in Canada. I think what's going to be very important in the Throne Speech is whether the federal government is willing to get down to a very serious, concrete dialogue to work with the provinces to develop a national childcare strategy, to look at an extension to the national child tax benefit, to recognize the importance of raising children, whether you're in the paid or the unpaid workforce.

Mr. Gherson: Mr. Godfrey, if we were to have this conversation in two years time will the children's agenda be a reality?

Ms. Godfrey: I would hope that we'll see in the next budget a major commitment, not only by the federal government, but provincial governments too, to a five-year strategy for children. It should include both the income components which we can deliver as the federal government, and the service components which we have to work together with the provinces through the social union process. And I would hope that all our governments understand that children are affected by different departments, whether it's justice, or the quality of the air we breathe, the environment department. Children, particularly early childhood development is affected by all of the things we do. Federally and provincially, we can't separate them out. And finally, I hope we keep score about all this, that we would actually measure how we're doing in things like readiness to learn, or birthrate, so that we would actually be able to see community-by-community how we're advancing.

Mr. Elley: I'd just like to say in summation that all the national programs of the federal government do not take the place of good parenting. They can only assist and so the Reform party is very keen on seeing the federal government do its major task of reducing taxation -- the high level taxes on lower and middle income people in this country is scandalous. You've got to put more money back into parents' pockets. They have the tools to do the work that needs to done..

Ms. Davies: I agree ..

Mr. Elley: ... to do good parenting. And you've got to replace the money that's been taken from the provinces and the Canada Health and Social Transfer, and allow the provinces to do the job that they're supposed to do under the Constitution.

Ms. Davies: I agree.

Mr Gherson: Thank you very much for your time.

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