Canada should invest in early childhood education, says McCain

Margaret Norrie McCain says Canada should build a high-quality early childhood development system that is available, affordable and accessible for all Canadian children. 

“Children who get off to a good early start in life, whose emotional, intellectual and physical needs are met, will lead healthier, more productive lives and will have the high emotional intelligence and resiliency to cope with everything life throws at them,” McCain told Faculty of Health graduates at York’s Spring Convocation Wednesday morning. “The best investment Canada can make for the healthy development of all future citizens is to ensure that their foundations are strong.”  

Left: Margaret Norrie McCain

The 73-year-old former New Brunswick lieutenant governor, who has devoted the past 40 years to promoting women’s rights, social equality, early childhood education and the arts, was at York to accept an honorary doctor of laws degree at the ceremony. 

She told her audience that how we live in society has as much bearing on our personal health as genes, medical care, diet and exercise. 

“Eating well, keeping fit, not smoking, pushing for cleaner air, trying to keep dangerous chemicals out of our bodies – all these are the obvious health prevention practices of which we need to be conscious,” she said. Now, however, there is robust scientific evidence that the circumstances in which people live and work – their education, family, career, friends, spiritual and cultural life – are all related to the risk of illness and length of life, she said. Citing Sir Michael Marmot, world-renowned for his studies on the social determinants of health, she gave this advice: 

  • “The more you strive for autonomy and control in your personal and professional lives, the healthier you will be. Someone who operates a one-person window-washing business has more control over his or her life than a person down many layers in the public service even though the latter earns more. For good health, control trumps income every time.” 
  • Nurture your relationships, beginning with an intimate partner. “Everything you do to make your relationships the best they can be will be good for your health.” Nurture your parents, siblings, extended family, but “especially your friends. They will be your support system and provide you with a soft landing when life gives you a hit and it inevitably will.” 
  • Become involved in your community. “Our quality of life is very much influenced by the community in which we live. So for your health, join a board, join a team, coach minor sports, be a hospital volunteer, join the board of a social agency, help a child to read, deliver meals on wheels.” 

“Self determination at work and at home, strong personal relationships, vibrant community affiliations are all as good for your health as your personal habits and lifestyle,” said McCain. “It’s not only good for you as an individual, it contributes to a healthy family, community and society.” 

Right: McCain with Chancellor Roy McMurtry (centre) and President & Vice-Chancellor Mamdouh Shoukri

She should know. McCain, the wife of wealthy New Brunswick entrepreneur Wallace McCain, has directed much of her energy to improving the lives of children and abused women. She is a founding member of the Muriel McQueen Fergusson Foundation to eliminate violence against women. A few years ago, she produced a seminal report, The Early Years, providing invaluable insights about children’s capacity to learn. She was New Brunswick’s first female lieutenant-governor and has been chancellor of Mount Allison University. Named one of Canada’s 100 most powerful women, she has received the Order of Canada and the Order of New Brunswick, been named Dame of Grace of the Most Venerable Order of the Hospital of St. John of Jerusalem, and won the 2005 YWCA Toronto Women of Distinction Award.

To see an archived Webcast of McCain’s speech, visit York’s Convocation Web page.