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Former Member of Parliament John Godfrey aptly called the Putting Science into Action conference in Sackville, New Brunswick, a gathering of friends of Fraser Mustard (FOFMs). The 300 FOFMs included children’s advocates in the form of scientists, decision makers and professionals from education, health and early childhood. Speakers and audiences shared a common framework of understanding that Fraser has nurtured for the past two decades. Fraser’s conviction that early human development sets the foundation for lifelong learning, behaviour and health tracks forward from the 1990s and the population health and human development programs at the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research, to the 1999 landmark Early Years Study: Reversing the Real Brain Drain (1) and his founding of the Council for Early Child Development in 2004. His work has jettisoned early child development to prominence on the public radar, and has opened up political space across Canada and internationally to consider significant public investments in early childhood.
In the intervening years, we have witnessed a long list of well-written and clearly documented reports championing an early childhood agenda for Canada (2,3). The Sackville conference reminded us of just how many words we can generate about programs, practices and policies based on the simple premise that families with young children in the 21st century needed easy access to holistic early childhood programs.
The 1999 Early Years Study: Reversing the Real Brain Drain (1) provided a new frame of understanding about early child development, which galvanized isolated pockets of people, activity and programs across Canada. The central recommendation of the report called for “a first tier program for early child development, as important as elementary and secondary school and the post-secondary education system”. The early years system envisioned by McCain and Mustard would consist of “community-based centres operating at the local level within a provincial framework”.
In 2004, an international team of experts from the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development studied early childhood education and care programs in Canada (4). The team recommended building bridges between child care and kindergarten education with the aim of integrating early childhood programs at ground level, and at policy and management levels. They also recommended funding a universal early childhood system for children one to six years of age, delivered by a mix of public and community providers, governed by local public authorities with a substantial increase in public funding and affordable access for parents.
In 2007, the Early Years Study 2: Putting Science into Action (5) called for the reorganization of early childhood and family support programs indispensable to the success of new public policy initiatives. “Increased investments in early childhood development are unlikely to produce its potential outcomes under the service status quo. Communities have the basis for child development and parenting centres by integrating their kindergarten, child care, family support and intervention programs. ...We know from research and international examples that mature, successful early childhood systems are integrated”.
Putting Science into Action also reminded us of the little action that has followed these words. Canadian public policies and investment in early childhood programming are meager, scattered and chaotic. Between the health care system that supports pregnancy and delivery until entry to public schooling, families are still left to fend for themselves. While the numbers of early childhood programs have expanded over the past decade, Canada remains far behind other countries, including the United States.
The conference discussions underscored how essential it is to have a specific and simple shared agenda to build a parade of supporters and influence government investment and policies. Canada (apart from Quebec) remains ambiguous about committing to, and investing in, a comprehensive early childhood system that supports young children and their families. Unfortunately, FOFMs have not been effective in persuading governments to invest the necessary dollars or put in place the necessary system changes. FOFMs who do share a framework of understanding, do not have a shared agenda and remain divided or undecided regarding key questions:
Since the Sackville conference, the Ontario Early Learning Advisor, Charles Pascal, released his report, “With our best future in mind: Implementing early learning in Ontario” (6). Pascal was asked by Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty to recommend the best ways to implement full-day learning for children four and five years of age within the context of a comprehensive, continuous and integrated system for children from birth to 12 years of age. Following 18 months of research and review, the report calls for a comprehensive overhaul of the existing array of services that would consolidate funding, legislation and decision making. The result is an ambitious but doable infrastructure that would create community-based child and family centres for children up to four years of age, and school-board operated full-day learning with after-school and summer programming for children from four to 12 years of age, all under the leadership of an early years division within the education ministry.
The report is a ‘how-to’ appendix for Early Years Study 2. Operational details may differ across provincial and territorial boundaries, but the operating principles remain the same:
Charles Pascal acknowledges the profound influence of Fraser Mustard in shaping the report and its recommendations. FOFMs now have a bold, but doable early years agenda that could galvanize their efforts to make real change.