Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to have an opportunity to speak about the government's policies on families and early learning and child care.
All of these policies and programs emerge from the understanding that at the very centre of every child's life is his or her relationship with his or her parents. The centrality of this relationship has always been the case and it always will be.
Recognizing that a fair, vibrant and productive society requires investment in our children, the Government of Canada has put in place a comprehensive set of policies and programs to assist parents and to support and enhance the range of families' choices. It is into this context that the government's commitment of $5 billion over five years for early learning and child care fits and should be understood.
The Canada child tax benefit and the national child benefit supplement provide assistance for low income families. These benefits have been described as the most important social program since the introduction of medicare. They help more than 3.5 million families meet the cost of raising their children.
In 2002-03 the Government of Canada's total annual assistance to families with children through the Canada child tax benefit and the national child benefit was $7.76 billion. That number is projected to reach $10 billion by 2007.
Maternity and parental benefits are offered through the employment insurance program. Five years ago these benefits were extended to provide replacement income for up to one year while a parent stays home with their new baby or newly adopted child.
In 2003, 86.4% of women with children under a year old and with insurable earnings received maternity and/or parental benefits. These benefits are also becoming increasingly attractive to men. In 2003 about 11% of men with children under a year old either claimed or intended to claim parental benefits.
These benefits can make an immense difference to these families. They create an opportunity for parents to spend time with their child during the child's first days of life and spend time with each other to help create the habits of parenthood, the joys of family. When parents return to work, they return with a feeling and a memory with the growing instinct of family and with the growing desire for family life.
To ensure that parents who take time out from full time work to raise their young children do not experience reduced pensions later on in their lives, the Canada pension plan has a child rearing dropout provision. All of this is to encourage and not to discourage the development of this important early parent-child bond.
In order to provide families with a handicapped child with financial assistance, the Government of Canada has introduced certain targeted measures such as the new child disability benefit and other tax initiatives.
We are also helping to improve and expand early childhood education programs via joint initiatives with the provinces and territories. Under the 2003 multilateral framework on early learning and child care, the Government of Canada is transferring $1.05 billion to the provinces and territories over five years to help them improve and expand their programs and services. By 2007-08, this commitment will represent $350 million annually.
One year ago we decided to do more. We decided the time had come to build on the important work of many dedicated people. We made a commitment to develop a system of early learning and child care in every province and territory in the country. One year ago the members opposite were not talking about building early learning and child care in this country. I am glad that early learning and child care has risen to the top of the national agenda. It is time.
As I said earlier, at the centre of a child's life is the relationship with his or her parents. That has always been the case and will always be the case. The lives of families can and do change over time. The challenge for a child to develop and learn to his or her fullest potential remains the same.
Early learning and child care is not, was never intended to be and never will be the only answer to a child's development, just as elementary school and high school are not understood as the only answer to learning and education. Simply put, early learning and child care is a tool, one of many for a child's development and for parents to use as they see fit.
As I have said on many occasions, as the members opposite know, early learning and child care is the way we live in this country. Seventy per cent of parents with children under the age of six are both in the workforce. The great majority of those kids are in child care of some form, but not in a form that is good enough. Only 20% are in regulated care and not in a form that reflects the importance of learning and development in a child's early years; not in a form that utilizes best the opportunities of all those hours of a day, days of a week, weeks of a year, years of a life, all the possibilities. This time is this an opportunity to be realized or an opportunity missed? We want to make this time work.
One year ago in this country early learning and child care was nowhere near that. Outside Quebec none of the other provinces or territories had the capacity or had as a priority to build an important ambitious system. The party opposite had no interest.
In last year's election, the Liberal platform commitment was for $5 billion over five years to help build a system of early learning and child care across the country. We were on our way. Then for a few weeks not long ago, when it appeared the opposition might not pass the budget bill, it seemed we might not be. The stakes were enormous. As the executive director of the Child Care Advocacy Association of Canada said, “We are so close. I just can't imagine being this close again. I feel I have been waiting my entire professional life for this moment. If it slips away, I don't know how I will carry on”.
We kept going. We signed several bilateral agreements with the provinces. The first one was in Winnipeg. The Prime Minister, the premier of Manitoba and the Manitoba minister for social services were there. The room was jammed. Every person who was there had inside them that quote, but there was also an agreement. We were on our way. The event was a celebration. In Regina, Hamilton, Gander and Halifax, it was the same, because Canadians, provincial and territorial governments want an early learning and child care system in every province and territory in the country. They know how important it is. They know that this is an opportunity too important to miss.
To provide a context, what the $5 billion over five years represents is a 48% increase in what all governments are currently spending on child care in this country. By the third year, midway through this five year program, what it will mean for the province of British Columbia is a 105% increase; for Alberta, 121%; for Saskatchewan, 95%; for Manitoba, 48%; and for Ontario, 69%. Even for Quebec, with all the money it put in, it is a 21% increase. It will mean for New Brunswick, 132%; Nova Scotia, 90%; P.E.I., 85%; Newfoundland and Labrador, 130%.
These agreements set out: the overarching national vision, principles and goals for early learning and child care; clear and measurable objectives; funding levels and eligible areas for investment; strong accountability through public reporting; a commitment to collaborate with each other on information, knowledge and best practices; and a commitment on the part of provinces and territories to develop an action plan in consultation with citizens and stakeholders for the period of federal funding.
These are the common elements, but we also recognize that every province and territory is unique. We recognize that in each province and territory early learning and child care is in a different stage of development. They have different immediate priorities. Their needs and circumstances may vary, so in addition to a common set of principles and parameters, we have also built in the flexibility to allow provinces and territories to meet the requirements of their citizens.
There is great flexibility in an early learning and child care system because the scale is so small and the system so much still evolving. The Government of Canada comes to agreement with the provinces and territories on the principles, expectations, understandings and accountabilities. The provinces and territories decide on how best to meet those obligations, with the flexibility to find different answers for rural areas and big cities and the flexibility to meet the circumstances of linguistic minorities, off hours or specific needs.
This is not an elementary school. This does not require a core of 150 students and millions of dollars for a building to make everything work. Nor is early learning and child care an all or nothing. It is not something for eight hours a day, five days a week, 50 weeks a year, or nothing. Even most stay at home parents want some time in the week for their children to have other experiences with other kids in other places. Early learning and child care can be two mornings a week or a day a week, for parents and kids as they see fit.
We want parents to have real choice. We want them to have the chance to choose quality, affordability and availability. We did not build schools by putting money into parents' pockets and asking parents to get together, if they wished, to put some of that money into a pot to build a school and hire some teachers.
We did not build hospitals or roads that way either. We decided that schools, hospitals and roads were important enough to enough people and were important enough to our present and future society that we put the public money directly toward them. This is what we are doing with early learning and child care.
Choice also means understanding the reality around us. The majority of Canadian women and men do not have university degrees. The great majority do not have professional degrees. They make modest incomes. For them, not working outside the home is not a choice. For them, no child care is not a choice. The only choice they might have, but too rarely, the choice they desperately seek for their kids, is good affordable child care. For them and for the great majority of Canadians, that is the only choice they might have.
Choice is not having nothing to buy. Choice is not waiting for a bus that has a $2.50 fare and having 10¢ in our pockets. Choice is not too many mediocre or non-existent child care spaces in too many parts of the country. Choice is not knocking on an $8,000 a year child care door, on average, with $320 in our pockets.
Choice is making available to all parents who want it, urban and rural, rich, middle income and poor, in every province and territory in the country, good, affordable, available early learning and child care. That is the choice we are looking to provide.
No one program ever offers an answer for everything. Nothing does. The health system does not. The education system does not. Even if we would like them to do more, doing what they do matters and matters a lot. We are a lot better off because of them. And we will be a lot better off for an early learning and child care system in every province and territory in this country.