“It’s the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard!” Thus spoke Mike Harris, then the largely-ignored leader of the third party in Ontario, soon to become the largely ignorant premier of Ontario. Of the infinity of dumb ideas a hard conservative like Mr. Harris might have meant, he was actually referring to my embrace of early childhood education.

This was in 1995, when the Royal Commission on Learning, which I co-chaired, issued its report. Based on a wealth of persuasive research, one of our key recommendations was that early childhood education (ECE) be offered to every family in Ontario as an integral part of the school system. This encompassed high-quality child care overseen by thoroughly qualified experts. According to the research, there was barely an aspect of a child’s development and education that would not benefit from such a program. ECE was not an ideological proposition in any way, until conservatives made it one.

Who knows where conservative delusions arise, given so many of them? Maybe Mike Harris got this one from Richard Nixon, another paranoid conservative who saw liberal conspiracies everywhere and who as President vetoed a bill to introduce comprehensive child care in the United States. But it could have come from anywhere, since many conservatives share this deeply irrational bias against an institution that would benefit every child it encompassed, possibly even the children of conservatives.

So it was that Stephen Harper’s very first act as Prime Minister five years ago was to cancel a federal-provincial agreement for a $1-billion a year quality national child-care program. Happy anniversary to all those hard-pressed families whose hopes were shattered in one fell swoop. Of course it’s true that instead of regulated, trustworthy child care, that strange man in Ottawa has been giving you $100 a month per kidlet to spend as you want. But you also know by now that proper child care will cost you umpteen times that amount.

How do we account for this weird conservative antipathy to something as sensible, practical and non-ideological as ECE?

Diane Finley, Mr. Harper’s Human Resources Minister, offered a clue the other day when she decried child care because it forced parents to have their children raised by “other people.” Who could these bogeymen, these mysterious and menacing “other people,” be? Well, as conceived by every advocate of a serious ECE program, they’d be highly trained teachers and caregivers, experts in child development. This may be reason enough for Conservatives to quake. As Ms. Finley’s boss likes saying (about almost everything), we don’t need experts telling us what to do. We have millions of experts on child care — moms and dads.

Right. Raising kids properly? Nothing to it. Easy peasy. Anyone can do it. With their eyes closed. Anyone but those trained for it, that is.

In fact, what the PM and his minister may well fear is that those experts they so disdain are colluding in a vast conspiracy against our children, with ECE as its tool. But to what conceivable end?

I learned the bizarre answer to this question exactly 16 years ago after the report of our Royal Commission, For the Love of Learning, came out. I participated in several phone-in shows to discuss our findings, and I vividly remember to this day the hostile reactions to our enthusiastic promotion of ECE. There were many of them.

What deeply distressed these callers was the fear that ECE, sanctioned by the Ontario Ministry of Education, organized by your local school board, conducted by highly qualified staff, was a diabolical plot to do something terrible, unspeakable, to their children’s minds. To steal them away from their families. Some explicitly declared that the purpose was to turn their children into Communists, even though the Soviet Union had dissolved four years earlier. Others insisted that the state intended to brainwash children in any number of unknown ways for malevolent purposes. Though what these could possibly be no one could ever say.

There was no plausible rebuttal to these delusions. This was a matter of deep superstition, not reason or science. This was the very antithesis of commonsense. I wondered how these parents could ever trust the school system, since the same provincial governments and school boards who would offer ECE were responsible for the next 15 years of their kids’ schooling.

But there was no answer, not even an attempt at one. Many Conservatives — including those who seem to win elections in Canada — simply have an irrational hatred of ECE, a delusional certainty that its purpose is evil, and a paranoid fear of its impact on their children.

The consequences of this blind conviction is to severely penalize millions of Canadians desperate for assistance with child care, with the worst penalties as always being paid by those already struggling to get by, and especially — as always — by the mothers.

The child-care system Mr. Harper so cavalierly deep-sixed to inaugurate his reign would by now have offered 500,000 families a choice of quality services. Instead some $12-billion in $100 handouts — twice the cost of the cancelled child-care program — has disappeared with nothing to show for it. Yet 70 per cent of mothers of young children are now in the work force — one of the great social revolutions of our time. Heaven knows what these families are doing in the absence of affordable child care, and the government doesn’t give a damn. The politics are funny here. I guess these families aren’t part of the Conservative base. But don’t many of them belong to precisely those immigrant groups the Conservatives are so assiduously wooing.

So how do those families even function? Obviously, with great difficulty. They’re lucky if they live in Quebec, and some do find subsidized high quality care centres. They rely on unregulated child care, maybe a grandmother, maybe a neighbour trying to make a few bucks at home, in either case completely untrained in proper child development. The hazards of such choices was driven home tragically only last month in Mississauga, Ontario, when a 14-month old died in an unlicensed home daycare; the operator has been charged with second-degree murder.

Or maybe they resort to for-profit child care, though it’s both expensive and, according to much research, generally of poorer quality than a public system. How could it be otherwise? Profit can only come from cutting all corners, including paying lousy salaries.

Unfathomable as it is to normal Canadians, in our strange world some hard-boiled conservatives are miffed at Stephen Harper for failing to set back the country as much as they expected he would. Be of stout heart. At least in the critical field of daycare and early childhood education, no conservative could want more than the Harper government has given them. I hope the Prime Minister campaigns hard on the issue in the coming election, and I hope the opposition parties make their own unbreakable commitments in return. It’s as important a matter as any on the Canadian agenda.


Gerry Caplan

Gerald Caplan has an MA in Canadian history and a Ph.D. in African history from the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London. He is an author, teacher, media commentator,...