Budget 2017: ‘Strong, fair Canada’ depends on strong, fair childhoods
Canada aspires to be an innovation nation, a focus of the commercial and social investments in Federal Budget 2017. It’s a vision to create better livelihoods and an economy that thrives in a rapidly changing world. To get there, we have to create the conditions in which our children and youth develop, learn, adapt and continue what they are great at – innovation. But we have big gaps to fill with smarter policies, services and investments to boost lagging child well-being outcomes.
What’s new for children and youth?
Early Learning and Child Care: The addition of $7 billion over 10 years, aiming for the universal minimum standard of 1 percent of GDP, provides a strong start toward a national system of support for early learning and child care. It is expected to create 40,000 new child care spaces. The number of spaces available should match the number who need it and evolve based on a universal right to quality child care, rather than an estimate.
Parental Leave: The option for a longer period of parental leave will help some families juggle paid employment and child rearing. The proposed changes enable mothers working in risky employment to access leave benefits while extending the period of leave for the first 18 months of a child’s life. Extended leave can support the critical period for bonding and breastfeeding and allow flexibility to address children’s developmental needs and challenges. However, a reduced rate of 33 percent rather than 55 percent remuneration limits the potential benefits. Whether the levels of support are adequate to allow parents, particularly lower-income earners and those in non-standard work, to use that option remains to be seen.
Youth Skills Training: The budget includes a number of initiatives to assist young people in learning and making the transition from schools to the workplace, including support for at-risk youth, workplace training and improved Internet access for low-income families. In addition to a focus on helping young people enter the labour market, more innovative approaches are needed to change the labour market. The Federal Government could incentivize the private sector to create better employment opportunities for youth, to share the profits of the steady growth in GDP. At the same time, stronger measures are needed to protect the health, safety and rights of young people in the workplace, beyond the attention given to unpaid internships for older youth.
Child Development: No country with a thriving economy and thriving children neglects the early years to the extent Canada has done. While child care and parental benefits are critical thrusts, a more holistic approach to early child development is absolutely crucial to achieve good outcomes. In Federal-Provincial health agreements, a set of minimum standards for early child health and development services to support cognitive and social milestones, child health and breastfeeding should be considered, and a more universal approach to the Community Action Program for Children.
A Children’s Budget: Budget 2017 takes an important step by including a gender-based analysis for the first time. Further development will improve future budgets and policy decisions. Budget 2017 also highlights the need for a more systematic approach for identifying the impact of specific initiatives for children and ensuring maximum benefit from investments. Using a Child Rights Impact Assessments at both the national and sub-national levels of government would help ensure that the many policies that impact children add up to measurable progress and avoid negative or unintended consequences.
A Commissioner for Children and Youth: Budget 2017 illustrates the complexity of making investments that have big implications for the context in which children grow up in Canada without a locus in government to help ensure they work well together and are good for children. The avoidable reality is that some children and some essential steps for healthy child development fall through the cracks. We need to establish a Children’s advocate that focuses on children and youth – a quarter of Canada’s population – and pulls the pieces together from a child’s perspective; the benefits would far outweigh the small cost of the office.