Toronto Star

October 13, 1999

Liberals focus on children

Longer parental leave, tax relief for families pledged

By Tim Harper
Toronto Star Ottawa Bureau

OTTAWA - More than $1 billion could be spent to double parental leave and allow mothers or fathers to spend the crucial first year of a child's life at home, the federal government says.

Human Resources Minister Jane Stewart said yesterday the increased parental leave and easier access to employment insurance benefits would be her priority from a throne speech which stressed the Liberal government's commitment to the country's youngest citizens.

She said her research showed every additional five weeks of employment insurance benefits costs the government $250 million, meaning this initiative could potentially cost Ottawa $1.25 billion.

``For us, it's an investment. We know having the opportunity to be at home longer with the child makes sense,'' Stewart said. ``Wouldn't it be nice if we could expand it up toward a year?''

Federal employees are now entitled to 25 weeks of leave and Stewart said Ottawa would lead by example and encourage the private sector to follow suit.

Prime Minister Jean Chrétien's Liberals also announced they would:

`Kids have waited long enough'

The Liberals also announced an array of programs which aim to allow Canadian youth to travel within their own country, participate in international programs and take part in national environmental and literacy projects.

``No commitment we make today will be more important for the long-term prosperity and well-being of our society than the commitment to invest our efforts in very young children,'' the government said in a speech delivered by Governor-General Adrienne Clarkson.

`For us, it's an investment. We know having the opportunity to be at home longer with the child makes sense. Wouldn't it be nice if we could expand it up toward a year?'
- Jane Stewart
Human Resources Minister

Chrétien will flesh out some of those initiatives today when he addresses the House of Commons.

Children's advocates praised the government's direction but withheld full applause until some of these initiatives are backed by spending in the next budget, expected in February.

Katherine Scott of the Canadian Council on Social Development said the government could have taken a more forceful leadership role rather than simply pledging to work with the provinces.

She also questioned the Liberal decision to wait until 2002 to extend the National Child Benefit to the middle class.

``Kids have waited long enough,'' she said. ``We don't need more evidence that this is needed. We have the evidence already.''

Sam Synard, president of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, said a lack of attention to the homeless in this country takes much of the impact from efforts to help children.

``A child who's homeless could care less whether or not he has access to the Internet,'' he said.

Martha O'Connor, executive director of the Canadian Living Foundation which helps establish child nutrition programs, said her organization was pleased by the pledge to forge a National Children's Agenda.

``We are encouraged that government attention will include support for community action on child nutrition,'' she said.

GTA Liberal MP John Godfrey, a leading advocate of the children's agenda in the Chrétien caucus, said he had not given up on a national day-care program, even if it goes by another name.

``We have a lot of work to do,'' he said. ``There is no guarantee we'll reach agreement with the provinces by December, 2000.

But, he said, he expected his government to set up a network of resource centres for children and parents, which he called ``day-care plus.

``Maybe we can call them something else like national nursery schools. Everybody can relate to that.''

Mary-Anne Bédard, of the Ontario Coalition for Better Child Care, has spent the last few months lobbying for a national child-care program. Tax cuts can wait, she said.

`` I think we have a very short four months to make this government understand the error of its ways and put their commitment into services and not just tax cuts,'' she said.

Opposition Leader Preston Manning said the government had its emphasis wrong. ``If the Liberals really want to do something for children, they should stop overtaxing their parents,'' he said.

With files from Patricia Orwen

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