Toronto Star

October 16, 1999

A promising plan to help children

The Toronto Star

Medicare started small and grew. So did Canada's public pension system. Prime Minister Jean Chrétien hopes to build a comprehensive set of children's programs the same way.

He took the first step this week, promising legislation by New Year's that will allow a parent to take up to a year's leave, with employment insurance benefits, for newborn or newly-adopted child. The current maximum is six months.

This change will put Canada in the international vanguard in terms of parental leave. (Sweden still does better with two years.)

The Prime Minister also:

These initiatives will not satisfy children's advocates who were hoping for universal child care; immediate action to fight child poverty; and a federal commitment to press ahead with early childhood education, with or without the provinces.

Nor will they overcome the legacy of distrust that exists between the Liberal government and working parents. They still blame the Prime Minister for reneging on his 1993 election promise to add 150,000 new licensed day- care spaces across the country.

But Chrétien has made a start. And he has put children at the top of his government's priority list. ``If we want the brightest future possible for our country, we must ensure that all our children have the best possible start in life,'' he said, laying out his blueprint for the next five years.

It is a good sign the Prime Minister is taking a personal interest in his government's children's agenda. It is even better that Ottawa is acting on its own to ensure that parents don't have to rush back to work in the critical early months of a child's life.

But there is a catch. Millions of parents - chiefly poorer ones - won't be eligible for paid leave. They work part-time or string together a series of short-term contracts. Most don't qualify for EI benefits, so taking a year off would be financially impossible.

There are two other serious gaps in Chrétien's approach.

It does little for single mothers who can't break the poverty cycle without affordable child care. There are 13,000 children on the waiting list for subsidized child care in Toronto, almost half from welfare households. As Mayor Mel Lastman said this week: ``This is a shocking statistic.''

Child care is primarily a provincial responsibility. But given the province's reluctance to meet the need, Ottawa may have to step in.

The second disappointment is the timing of the increase in the national child benefit. Poor families will have to wait almost two years for the additional money.

At a time when 38 per cent of Toronto's children are living in poverty, one out of six elementary students depends on school breakfast and lunch programs and 1,000 youngsters are living in homeless shelters, the delay in raising the child benefit is hard to understand.

It will take time, money and an unprecedented degree of federal-provincial co-operation to give Canada's children the future Chrétien envisages for them.

It is too early to celebrate. But there is reason to hope.

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