Madam Speaker, I am pleased to have the opportunity to address the House today on Motion No. 261, advocating a national head start program for Canadian children.
In the last decade we have learned a tremendous amount about early child development. What happens in the first few years of life, indeed as early as the prenatal period, can have a lasting effect on the development of a child. A child's earliest experiences often affect his or her capacity to learn, to be healthy and to be productive throughout life. We now know, for example, that the brain develops more rapidly in the first year of life than had previously been believed.
While most children go through the early years of life getting everything they need to develop to their full potential, some children are not as fortunate. Unfortunately poverty is the largest single factor affecting young Canadians today. Many children who live in poverty have inadequate housing or do not get enough to eat. Other Canadian children live in families who are isolated without adequate social support or who face barriers to accessing quality health care and social services. Still other children experience neglect or abuse. It is estimated that one in five children are living in conditions of risk.
The hon. member will be pleased to know that early investments in healthy child development are a priority for this government. The government is taking a preventative approach to physical and mental health by optimizing early child development for all children and intervening early for at risk and marginalized children. The government recognizes the importance of supporting families, which have undoubtedly the most important influence on a child's development. Also recognized is the need to support parents in their role as children's teachers and their protectors.
The Government of Canada has developed three programs that provide long term funding to community groups to design and deliver programs to address the needs of pregnant women, young children and families living in conditions of risk. The first program is the Canada prenatal nutrition program, CPMP; the second is the community action program for children, CAPC; and the aboriginal head start program is the third.
The Canadian prenatal nutrition program, or CPMP, funds 264 projects in 751 communities. These projects offer food supplements, nutrition counselling and support, education and counselling on issues such as alcohol abuse, stress and family violence. These projects also make referrals to other services; 8,500 in their first six months of operation.
CPMP participants are pregnant teens, women living in isolation, women who abuse alcohol or other substances, women living in violent situations and women diagnosed with other problems including diabetes, et cetera. This program is successfully reaching pregnant women who are at risk of low birth. In fact the number of participants in 1997 and 1998 is 30% higher than was anticipated.
The community action program for children, or CAPC, funds over 450 projects across Canada so that children get a better start in life and are ready to start school and improve their chances of growing into healthy and productive adults. Activities include home visiting, parenting classes, play groups, discussion groups and counselling. Over 30,000 parents and children are involved each week in CAPC activities.
In addition, these projects have created 1,000 jobs with 20% of them filled by CAPC parents. The projects also account for 30,000 hours of volunteer time every month. I can speak from experience regarding the CAPC. It is an exceptional program and certainly one which is valued by the residents of my riding Waterloo—Wellington.
Children at aboriginal head start spend an average of three hours per day and four days per week in classroom activities. Approximately 30,000 children are enrolled in the program with an average of 30 to 40 children at any given site. Approximately 400 aboriginal people are employed in head start centres and aboriginal communities are involved in the planning, development and operation of all aboriginal head start projects.
Aboriginal head start, CAPC and CPNP have all proven successful in working within broad based community partnerships channelling resources into areas where they have the most positive impact on at risk and marginalized children. The success of these programs speaks volumes to the value of co-operative community based interventions for children.
This community based approach is paying back dividends by getting more children off to a better start in life, increasing their school readiness and improving their chances of growing into healthy and productive adults who will participate fully in Canadian society.
There are some key issues raised by the motion in the context of the national children's agenda which I would like to highlight at this time.
First, the motion represents a major emerging theme in the national children's agenda but is only one part of that agenda. Early child development while a central theme to NCA is only one piece of the overall agenda and discussions are still in an early stage. No decisions have been made regarding the specific areas of action. The national children's agenda is a more comprehensive approach to child development than the present motion covering children throughout their entire childhood. For example, other areas of interest include supporting families around work, family balance and effective safe communities. It is important to support children in early years but that support must continue throughout development.
Second, further consideration is needed on how to strategically focus our efforts on the early years of childhood. The exact development years which would be included in early child development remains under discussion. The motion does not consider the prenatal period which is crucial to child development. For example, low birth weight babies are more at risk for later developmental problems. As well, though the motion refers to children ages zero to eight, it may be more appropriate to start with children in their early preschool years, for example under age four or five where no formal system currently exists. Then as the system develops the program could be expanded to include children ages six to eight when school transition issues begin.
Third, the motion misses the importance of citizen engagement in plans to improve the well-being of Canada's children. The motion speaks to the need to work with the provinces and territories on children's issues. However no mention is made of the importance of engaging the public. The national children's agenda is intended to be more than a product of governments talking to governments and other partners will be engaged as the agenda moves forward. All Canadians will have the opportunity to contribute their views regarding possible areas for action and to define how we improve the well-being of all Canadian children.
Fourth, full implementation by the year 2000 is overly optimistic. Though the programs listed in the motion in the federal government's CAPC provide good models on which to build, full implementation of the national head start program by the year 2000 is too optimistic. Given the overlapping areas of jurisdiction and the cross sectorial approach needed to properly address children's issues, negotiations for a national head start will take some time, not to mention the time required for broader consultations to engage citizens.
In light of the growing body of research demonstrating the window of opportunity which exists in early childhood, and in view of the growing political and public interest in the area of child development, a system to enhance early child development is critical and should be an early priority.
Clearly children's issues, particularly those relating to early child development, are a priority as indicated in the September 23, 1997 Speech from the Throne, the recent first ministers' meeting of December 12, 1997, and the commitment to federal-provincial territorial development of the national children's agenda. This is apparent.
Motion No. 261 is consistent with this emphasis on enhancing children's well-being. However, given the status of the national children's agenda it would be inappropriate for the motion to go forward.
Early in 1997 federal, provincial and territorial governments began working together to develop the national children's agenda. It would be inconsistent to now be advancing on another front on a private member's motion and what it suggests.
Most recently at the December 12, 1997 meeting, first ministers reaffirmed their commitment to new co-operative approaches to ensure child well-being. Noting the progress of the national children's agenda, first ministers agreed to fast track work on that agenda. Until that work in progress has been outlined and discussed Motion No. 261 is premature.
Therefore I ask all members of the House to vote accordingly.