Toronto Star

October 14, 1999

Families the focus of Liberals' millennium strategy

`Nothing more important than parents spending time with children'

By William Walker and Tim Harper
Toronto Star Ottawa Bureau

OTTAWA - Real support for Canadian families and children in their earliest years will be the backbone of the Liberal government's strategy for the millennium, Prime Minister Jean Chrétien has declared.

``Nothing is more important than for parents to be able to spend the maximum amount of time with newborn children in the critical early months of a child's life,'' Chrétien said last night in a major speech to the House of Commons.

It was the Prime Minister's turn to give a speech responding to his own government's Speech from the Throne Tuesday and to put some meat on the bones of the general policy framework.

And that he did, confirming that by Jan. 1, 2001, his government will pass legislation to extend Employment Insurance maternity and parental leave benefits to one year from the current maximum six months, at an estimated cost of $1 billion.

Chrétien said the benefits will also be made more flexible to meet families' varying needs and more parents will be eligible - prompting a rousing standing ovation from Liberal MPs in the Commons.

``There is now overwhelming scientific evidence that success in a child's early years is the key to long-term health development,'' Chrétien said in a speech that was much more impassioned than the throne speech.

Chrétien urged provinces to speed up negotiations with Ottawa on a five-year National Children's Agenda.

``We must move as quickly as possible from talk to action. Today, I challenge all governments to have in place by December, 2000, a federal-provincial agreement . . . to strengthen community supports for early childhood development,'' the PM said.

Chrétien also reiterated his government's promise of tax relief but cautioned that ``it's only one part of the equation. Today, success in the global economy depends on our human talent, our ability to learn . . . to make new discoveries.

``A comprehensive, balanced economic strategy requires investment - public and private - in children, knowledge, creativity, innovation, health and the environment.''

Chrétien also announced a plan called Exchanges Canada to offer 100,000 young people a year a chance to travel to learn about another part of the country.

Earlier in the day, Human Resources Minister Jane Stewart offered more details on plans to move Canadian parents beyond the ``days of June and Ward Cleaver'' (from the 1950s television program Leave It To Beaver).

She told The Star that adoptive parents would be included in federal plans to extend parental leave.

She said Ottawa will act on a joint Commons-Senate committee, which recommended late last year that family law be overhauled to ensure divorced parents share the job of raising their children.

Although she would not offer specifics on the government's direction, the committee recommended that children be guaranteed access to both parents and it called for abolition of terms such as ``custody and access'' in the Divorce Act in favour of ``shared parenting.''

She also said a national day-care program is not necessarily dead.

``You'll see it in our partnership with the provinces,'' she said.

``We'll be there with money to support the National Child Benefit and encourage provinces to make reinvestment in areas that make sense for their constituents.''

That will provide a network of support for young children across the country, she said.

In his response to the throne speech, Opposition leader Preston Manning said Liberal support for the family must begin with rights for the unborn, followed by a definition of marriage and family.

It must protect children by acting to reverse a court decision allowing possession of child pornography.

But most important, Manning said, the Liberals must put money back into the pockets of parents.

``Stop overtaxing their parents,'' he said, adding that move would eliminate the need to invent costly new programs, he said.

Manning's tax-cut plan would put $4,600 back into the hands of a family of four over three years, he said.

``That's $4,600 they can save or use to buy whatever they want - food, shelter, clothing, education or recreation,'' Manning said.

``The government talks about being in step with high tech and the computer age where speed is of the essence, but with respect to getting the federal fiscal house in order - particularly providing tax relief - this government moves at the pace of a snail dragging a chain through the mud.''

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