Mission: Twenty years later, Margaret Norrie McCain's focus is still
on nurturing the minds of young children. She hopes politicians won't
abandon an issue that transcends politics and election campaigns.

On a muggy late-spring afternoon, with the smell of an approaching
thunderstorm thick in the air, Margaret Norrie Mc- Cain settles into an
armchair and, like the true Maritimer she is, meanders into the story.

The air is still and the house is silent except for her voice, which
is soft, but so articulate and sure-footed that it demands complete

The sunroom overlooks the back gardens of the gracious
old home she shares with her husband, the billionaire businessman
Wallace McCain, in the treelined neighbourhood of Rosedale in Toronto.

years living in the big city haven’t taken away any of the genuine
warmth and humility with which she fills the room. She could just as
easily be sitting in her family home on the hill overlooking the St.
John River in Florenceville, watching thunderheads roll down the valley.

giving you the science first,” she says.“In the years zero to three,
children’s environment and their experiences actually turn their genes
on or off.

“We used to wonder what had the greatest influence,
nature or nurture.

We’re not even talking about either.

we’re talking about this intricate dance between nature and nurture. You
are born with certain genes, but your experiences can actually turn on
or turn off the genes you are born with.

“Once they are turned
off, we don’t know how to turn them back on. So a baby’s brain in those
first three years becomes hard-wired to be violent, or to not be able to
learn to full capacity, or to have physical or mental health problems
down the road. It’s an absolutely growing, mind-boggling science.”

now 75, is more determined than ever to put what she considers the most
important public policy question directly before political leaders.
That question, simply put, is: What is society’s role to provide for the
healthy development of our children in their earliest years? For
McCain, the story always must begin with the science, the facts that
ground the policy.

It was with these facts, in this same room,
that she began educating Shawn Graham about early childhood development
before he became premier.

When he was leader of the Opposition,
she arranged for him to visit the Bruce/ WoodGreen Early Learning Centre
in Toronto, which is a demonstration site, the laboratory for a new way
of integrating child care and learning for children aged two to six.

made sure that during his visit, Graham also sat in her sunroom and had
a long conversation with Jane Bertrand, one of the researchers on the
project, who is now the program director of the Margaret and Wallace
McCain Family Foundation.

After Graham became premier, his
government announced the creation of four early childhood development
demonstration centres and formed a partnership with the McCain
Foundation to fund five more, along with an accompanying university
research program.

When it became clear that the September election
in New Brunswick would be a horse race, McCain wrote to Opposition
leader David Alward explaining why he should not abandon the early
childhood programs started by the Liberal government should he become

“I know that Shawn Graham could be defeated and I’m so
worried,” McCain says. “You just get roots in the ground, you get legs
and you get things growing and then all of a sudden you get a new
government (that) wants to cancel everything.

“I sent David Alward
a long email, almost pleading with him not to abandon what we’ve
started. Because he comes from Carleton County and that’s where our
biggest investment is, I don’t think he’ll cancel it. I think he’ll stay
with it. He says he will. He answered my email. He said, ‘don’t worry.’ ”
For McCain, early childhood development is an issue of such importance
for the future of the province that it transcends politics and election

Her advocacy with New Brunswick’s political leaders is
the continuation of years of work that has influenced early childhood
development policy around the world.

Today, McCain can say exactly
where it all started. But at the time, almost two decades ago when she
was invited to lunch at the grand white mansion on Waterloo Row in
Fredericton that is the residence of the president of the University of
New Brunswick, she remembers wondering just what she was doing there.

had been invited to lunch by then- UNB president Robin Armstrong, and
was joined by then Liberal minister of health Dr. Russell King and Dr.
Fraser Mustard, the founding director of the Canadian Institute for
Advanced Research.

Mustard was touring the country, talking to
ministers of health about his latest area of research – the new science
about the brain development of children in their earliest years. His
research suggested that the experiences of children from birth to age
six determines the course of their lives, that it is in those years that
the brain is hard-wired in ways that absolutely determine learning
potential, physical and mental health, even such intangibles as coping
skills and resiliency in stressful situations.

“I’ve never felt so
stupid in all my life,” McCain says. “I didn’t have a clue what they
were talking about. Dr. Armstrong and Dr. Mustard were way ahead of me.

sat there like a bump on a log wondering, ‘why am I here?’ Why have
they pulled me into this?’ ” When she left the meeting, she went home
with a stack of reading material supplied by Mustard. As she read these
studies about the brain development of children, she realized why they
had pulled her into their orbit.

Before she met Mustard, McCain
had been raising her four children in Florenceville and beginning her
journey in philanthropy as a founding director of the Muriel McQueen
Ferguson Foundation, which has a mission to eliminate family violence
through public education and research.

“All of a sudden all the
light bulbs went on,” she says. “If we really want to eliminate
violence, we may never get there totally, but to work toward it, we have
to start back in the earliest years when children’s brains are being
hard-wired to be violent.”

If she was interested in healthy human
development, she had to focus on healthy early childhood development.

child development is tier one in human development,” McCain says.“It is
in these years when your learning, your health and your behaviours are

She gradually became more involved in Mustard’s mission.
When she was appointed New Brunswick’s lieutenant governor in 1994, she
invited bureaucrats and cabinet ministers to Old Government House for a
nice dinner and seated all of them next to the other invited guests –
researchers in early childhood development.

“This is what you call
sowing the seeds,” she says, sitting back in her armchair and smiling.

Mustard continued to tour the country and the world talking about the
research and advocating for appropriate public policy responses. One of
his stops was to speak to the caucus of Ontario premier Mike Harris.

asked him to do an early childhood development study. Mustard agreed,
and asked McCain to be his cochair.

“It’s not an exaggeration to
say he led the parade and I was flying on his coattails,” McCain says.

Early Years Study was released in 1999, to a disappointing response
from the Ontario government. However, the study took on a life of its
own and travelled the world, influencing governments in Australia,
Brazil, Chile, Argentina and Cuba. The study influenced the policy of
the World Bank in developing countries.

Mustard and McCain
produced a follow- up study in 2002 and 2007, and today they are working
on another. The studies merge the science of child brain development
with the reality of societal changes that have seen most mothers
entering the workforce and more children in need of quality care and
nurturing from birth to age six.

At the heart of the
recommendations is the extension of parental leave to one year,
preferably two, and the creation of early child development centres
linked to the existing education system. These centres create a seamless
day of care and learning for children aged two to six.

“None of
our recommendations is mandatory,” McCain says. “They are all optional,
so that parents have a choice of staying at home, but by creating
something that is high quality, believe me, there is going to be a lot
of uptake.”

While she continued her work with Mustard, McCain and
her husband Wallace decided to create a foundation that would provide
funding for the creation of demonstration centres and further research.

my husband and I decided that we would move beyond kitchen table
philanthropy and create a foundation with some structure and some bones,
our plan was that we would be strategic and focused.”

She hired
Bertrand, a faculty member at George Brown College in Toronto and a
leading Canadian researcher on childhood development, as the
foundation’s program director.

Because of her family’s attachment
to Atlantic Canada and New Brunswick in particular, the foundation
focuses its work in Atlantic Canada.

She notes that there is a
special need here. In New Brunswick, 59 per cent of the population is
functionally illiterate, which means the majority of the population can
read at a basic level and get by, but they couldn’t comprehend a

“You can’t be successful if that percentage of your
people aren’t going to reach their full potential,” McCain says,
“Investing in our people has to be one of the most important things we
can do. We cannot have a successful economy, we cannot have a successful
society, if 59 per cent of our people are functionally illiterate.

it’s hugely important to start investing in children at an early age
when the building blocks for their learning potential are set in place.”

2009, the Graham government launched four early childhood demonstration
sites in Bath, Moncton, Robertville and Saint John. In 2010, the
government formed a partnership with the McCain Foundation to create
five more in Centreville, Keswick, Millville, Perth- Andover and
Richibucto. The foundation also provided $500,000 for an accompanying
research program at UNB and the Université de Moncton.

research program will establish a baseline report on the condition of
children coming into the school system now, and then, after a few years
of investment in child development centres, determine if there has been
an improvement. This kind of research becomes a driver for public

“Even though we are known Liberals, I have voted for every
party and supported every party,” McCain says. “The Early Years Study
was under Mike Harris and I supported him. But I have huge admiration
for Shawn Graham. He certainly wants to do what’s right. I don’t know if
people really understand the importance of it. He’s moving in the right
direction on this issue.”

McCain says that, in an ideal world,
all children in Canada beginning at age two would have access to child
development centres connected with community schools. The centres would
open at 7:30 in the morning and remain open until 6:30 in the evening to
accommodate working parents.

The centres would be staffed with
teachers and trained early childhood educators. A child wouldn’t know
the difference between learning and care.

Parents could choose to
stay home with their children, or drop them off at the centre in the
morning and pick them up on their way home from work. These schools
would become the hub of their communities.

How much would such an
ideal program cost at the national level? According to University of
British Columbia researchers, about $22 billion a year. (A reasonable
estimate would be $300 million to $500 million a year in New Brunswick.)
This number is large, McCain says, but it would include everything,
including paying early childhood educators more, and creating training
programs in universities.

The figure is not all new money.

$10 billion a year is now being spent across the country in a patchwork
quilt of programs with varying degrees of accessibility and quality.

notes that there would be a return for this investment when there is
less money being spent on interventions later in life in health care,
social services, and transition houses where cycles of violence are
being perpetuated.

“Eventually, once you start investing, you get
the payback,” she says. “Look what we are spending in Afghanistan. So
isn’t it a matter of priorities?”


Source: Daily Gleaner – http://tinyurl.com/2w4nnua