Margaret McCain Portrait

Hon. Margaret Norrie McCain

Twenty years ago, the late Dr. Fraser Mustard asked me to co-chair his team, assembled at the request of the Ontario government, to advise on how to improve outcomes for young children. It was an exciting time for those with an interest in human development. Great leaps were being made in our understandings of brain growth in young children. The nature versus nurture debate was settling as scientists agreed that both genes and environment not only impact developmental trajectories but also play off one another. Economists were out front with concerns that schools were not preparing the next generation for the high-tech economy. In the media, the flight of Canada’s high-profile talent to the U.S. dominated.

Eight years later, in 2007, Fraser and I were joined by Dr. Stuart Shanker to produce Early Years Study 2: Putting Science Into Action. It showed how early education could expand by building on public education. Ontario stepped up, and with the lessons learned from Toronto First Duty (Corter, et al, 2012), created play-based, full-day kindergarten for all four- and five-year-old children. Other jurisdictions followed suit to expand early education within their schools.

In 2011, Early Years Study 3: Making Decision, Taking Action  launched a new monitoring tool – the Early Childhood Education Report (ECER) developed by our co-author, Kerry McCuaig at the Atkinson Centre at the University of Toronto and our Foundation’s program director, Jane Bertrand. In assessing provincial and territorial ECE 2 systems, they found that despite improvements, Canada lagged far behind most wealthy countries in offering ECE. Now produced every three years, the ECER is used by governments to inform policy and spending decisions.

All three studies gathered evidence documenting the benefits of ECE for children, families, and communities. They describe how ECE: 

  • Offers opportunities for all children
  • Lifts children and their families out of poverty and social exclusion
  • Reconciles work and family life
  • Fosters female labour force participation and gender equity
  • Develops a more literate and skilled workforce
  • Cultivates a pluralistic, democratic society

Most important, ECE gives children a space where play and friendships flourish, making for happier, healthier childhoods. Still, only one in two Canadian children between the ages of 2- and 4-years old can access the opportunities that ECE offers.

Early Years Study 4 calls on governments to offer early education to all preschool-aged children. The concept replaces outdated notions of daycare. Instead of “a place kids go while mom works”,  today’s ECE provides a first tier of education that is as important — if not more so — than those that follow.

Nia with book

Early childhood education for all will require senior governments to make new investments, devoting an additional $8-billion in total to annual budgets. Quality early education will also need concerted attention to ensure equitable access and a qualified and resourced workforce. Although the payoffs are priceless, economists have done the math, finding returns of up to $6 for every dollar spent. The benefits are large, as are the costs of inaction. We cannot afford to squander the untold talents of another generation. When Canadian children thrive, Canada thrives.


Dr. Fraser Mustard (1927 – 2011)

Dr. Mustard was a medical scientist who came to understand the importance of early human development on lifelong learning, behaviour, physical and mental health. He was Dean of Medicine at McMaster University and, in 1982, founded the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research. Dr. Mustard believed strongly in the importance of early childhood education in nurturing young children and their families. He also understood the long reach forward of early child development. Over the course of his career, Dr. Mustard advised governments from across Canada and internationally on early human development and was a member of the Board of Trustees for the Aga Khan University.