• Eran Sandler, Creative Commons

    Beyond Daycare: Providing Options for Young Parents

    We need a comprehensive childcare program with a variety of options to ensure strong, healthy, and happy Canadian families.

    A few weeks ago, The Vancouver Sun featured a front-page article on the issue of daycare costs in British Columbia, referencing a report from the Surrey Board of Trade. The report presents the case for providing $10/day childcare for British Columbians, and calls on the federal government to create a national child-care program. The argument presented is largely an economic one, focussing on the need to ensure that young parents are able to participate in the workforce. While this is an important point, we need to also look at the social, health, and other benefits of supporting young families in our country, and to provide parents with childcare choices, including the option to stay at home.

    There are strong arguments in favour of subsidized daycare programs as well as evidence of their benefits from as nearby as Quebec. In that province, parents of all economic backgrounds can access provincial childcare for only $7/day. This ambitious 2.2 billion dollar program has seen spectacular results over the last 15 years, including a 22% rise in working mothers, an 81% rise in after-tax income to families, a 50% reduction in parents on welfare, and a 50% reduction in child poverty. These results mirror other countries where investments in childcare have boasted long-term economic returns.

    While the program in Quebec is not without flaws (for example, there are still not enough spaces for all of the province’s children), its economic results are evidence enough for subsidized childcare options across the country. There are also many other compelling arguments for providing quality daycare for our nation’s children: it can help parents achieve a healthier work-life balance, contributing to happier relationships and reduced health problems, and it provides children with an early start to their education, the benefits to be seen for years to come.

    But daycare is not the only way to support young parents; there are many benefits to providing extended parental leave for mothers and fathers who want to care for children at home. The benefits of longer parental leave include economic returns such as higher rates of employee satisfaction and higher employee retention, as well as many health and social benefits. For example, allowing parents time off to take care of their kids has been shown to contribute to the long-term health of children, lower rates of depression in women, increased fertility rates, and when parental leave is shared between mothers and fathers, it can contribute to greater gender equality.

    Scandinavian countries frequently top charts for having the “happiest” people in the world and being some of the “best” places to live. They are also some of the best places to be a parent. In Sweden, parents get 480 days of paid leave, 60 of which must be shared between both parents, and in Norway they have just over a year of paid leave plus the option of an additional year unpaid. In Finland, parents are entitled to a childcare allowance if they choose to stay home with their children for up to three years. They are also entitled to shorter work hours until the end of the child’s second year in school at age 9 (since formal schooling only begins at age 7 in Finland), as well as subsidized daycare.

    The federal Liberals call for a national strategy to provide universal early childhood education and care that ensures no child is excluded due to cost or any other reason. The economic and social benefits of such a program are clear, but I hope that the conversation does not stop there. Young parents must have choices, including the option to raise their children at home without fear of losing their jobs. We should also look at options for providing subsidies to grandparents, nannies, and others who provide childcare as is currently being debated in Australia.

    Today’s children are the future of our country. Investing in childcare, including affordable daycare, extended parental leave and benefits, and other family supports, should be of utmost importance for all Canadians. Since each family is unique, we need a comprehensive program with a variety of options to ensure strong, healthy, and happy Canadian families.

  • Vancouver Skytrain travel investment

    Canada Needs an Infrastructure Plan

    All levels of government must collectively identify needs.

    Op-ed originally published in The Vancouver Sun on August 5, 2014

    Barj Dhahan op-ed Vancouver Sun

    We need to invest now in public transit to accommodate the one million new residents expected during the next 30 years, yet there is much debate about which projects to focus on and where the funding will come from, according to Barj Dhahan, the founder and chief executive officer of Sandhurst Group.

    Former chief economist and senior vice president of the World Bank, Justin Yifu Lin, was presented in May with an honorary doctoral degree from UBC for his contributions to the field of economics and development. Lin has written extensively about the importance of investments in infrastructure to promote healthy economies. He has recently proposed the development of a Global Structural Transformation Fund, sparking me to reflect on the need for a comprehensive infrastructure plan for Canada.

    Investing in infrastructure has been shown to be a key factor in the development of robust economies. According to the World Bank, a 10-per-cent increase in infrastructure investment leads to a one per cent growth in GDP. Lin has said that, “Such investment also creates jobs, both in the short term, by creating demand for materials and labour, and in the long term, for related services. For example, every $100 million invested in rural road maintenance translates into an estimated 25,000-50,000 job opportunities.”

    In cities, improving transit infrastructure not only creates jobs, but has also been shown to increase productivity as people are more easily able to get to and from places of work. The economic benefits of infrastructure investment are clear, but how do we ensure the most efficient and effective infrastructure planning?

    In late March, the New Building Canada Plan was launched by the federal government, allocating $53 billion during 10 years to infrastructure development. While the plan includes funds to address needs at different levels, there is confusion about how this money will be allocated, when it will be allocated, and who will make those decisions.

    There are critiques that the plan does not make sufficient funds available for the first two years, and many municipalities are left wondering if they will be able to address serious local infrastructure problems any time soon.

    What is troubling about this plan and similar funding sources, is that money is allocated based on a competitive process. Provinces and cities must submit applications to fund their specific needs and hope their project will be selected. The problem is exemplified by the current debate around public transportation investments in Metro Vancouver.

    It is clear we need to invest now in public transit to accommodate the 1 million new residents expected during the next 30 years, yet there is much debate about which projects to focus on and where the funding will come from. Metro Vancouver mayors recently presented a transportation investment plan covering major projects for the next 10 years but the provincial government rejected the mayors’ hope to use carbon tax revenues to help fund the projects.

    Should each municipality be left on its own to come up with the funds? Should Surrey compete against Vancouver to fund each of its proposed rapid transit projects?

    Currently, there is no sustained source of federal funding to address transit or other core infrastructure needs for municipalities; the ongoing debate between Metro Vancouver mayors and the province highlights this major gap.

    What is needed is a comprehensive infrastructure plan for the country based on ample dialogue between experts and all levels of government that clearly lays out an investment plan for the short, medium, and long-term with funds earmarked for specific projects.

    Stakeholders would need to come together to clearly define the country’s major infrastructure needs and to formulate agreements in principle about project priorities, criteria, and funding sources in order to make efficient decisions.

    Such a strategy would contribute to economic growth not only by investing in infrastructure, but also by facilitating strategic planning to ensure that projects are undertaken in a timely manner and on budget. It would allow for government, industry, labour and community groups to strategize regarding material and labour needs, generating a steady flow of employment opportunities for Canadians.

    Most important, it would not pit municipalities against each other, but instead would include regular dialogue and consensus-building between all levels of government to make sure no one is left in the dark, both figuratively and literally!

  • Barj Dhahan and father in law

    The Dignity of All Work

    We often undervalue the contributions of our nation’s workers. Instead, we must value and celebrate the dignity of all honest work.

    There is much talk in the media these days about the thousands of jobs in British Columbia and the rest of Canada that will have to be filled by non-Canadians – meaning new immigrants and/or temporary foreign workers. Most of these jobs will require workers with trades skills, technical experience and knowledge. While this may be the case, the tone of the public discourse is, perhaps unintentionally, diminishing the value of the kind of work that many Canadians, new immigrants and temporary foreign workers do.

    When their jobs are called “menial,” “grunt,” “low skilled,” or “unskilled,” I believe we are unfairly degrading this kind of work. Our society cannot function without people working in these jobs, and the people that do them deserve to be valued for their contributions to our communities.

    In Canada, we don’t only need people working in high tech, “high skilled” jobs. We need people to work in all aspects of a functioning society. Whether it is picking the food that ends up on our kitchen tables, serving coffee, building houses, or growing a business, each person contributes to the development of our communities and our economy in an important way. Each position that a worker takes on will help them to develop the skills they need to progress in their own life and to further advance our economy as a whole. And each position allows a worker to develop important people skills such as communication and teamwork, ensuring more cohesive and harmonious communities.

    With my father at Sunset Community Centre

    With my father at Sunset Community Centre

    My father came to Canada in 1960 with no marketable or technical skills. He worked as a labourer in a saw mill, a plywood mill, and in a small metal fabricating shop on the weekends where he painted railings. Eventually he started his own construction company. He became successful in the latter and ended up pioneering one of the first Canada-India partnerships, building a major education and health care centre in India, and forging a relationship with the University of British Columbia in training nurses. This initiative has been beneficial to both Canada and India, and may not have been possible if it weren’t for the skills my father had learned in his earlier roles.

    Similarly, my father-in-law, Jacob Loewen, and his family arrived in Canada in 1948 after fleeing their home town of Tiege, Ukraine in 1944, which had been under communist rule. With a grade eight education and a short apprenticeship in carpentry in Germany after the end of World War II, his first job was on a farm in Abbotsford. Later, in 1951, he worked on some construction sites in Kitimat and Burns Lake, and in 1956, he started his own construction company, going on to build over 125 single family homes in Vancouver and multiple commercial buildings over a 25 year period. He worked hard from sunrise to sunset for many years and he loved every minute of it. He even found time to take English literature classes in the evening at John Oliver Secondary School and the Dale Carnegie Course to improve his English and public speaking skills.

    Barj Dhahan and father-in-law Jacob Loewen

    My father-in-law, Jacob Loewen, at his wood working hobby 

    My mother-in-law, Hilda (Stobbe) Loewen, whose family also came to Canada after World War II says, “….in Canada we were no longer afraid. We could now work hard and create a better life for ourselves and others.”

    I started working when I was 11 years old; I took on all kinds of jobs around Port Alberni where my family had immigrated. My first job was picking potatoes in September with my mother and my youngest sister. I later delivered the Vancouver Sun and Province newspapers, worked in a hardware store, picked strawberries, corn and vegetables on farms, and worked at the plywood mill. In the summer after grade 10, I was working 16 hour days – on a farm seven days a week, and nights at the Alberni Plywood mill.

    When we moved to Vancouver South, I began working after school and on weekends at the Terminal Saw Mill and later one summer at the Eburne Saw Mill where the B.C. Transit Station now sits. I worked on the log boom, on the green chain, as a carpenter’s helper, on night fire watch and on cleanup crew. Many evenings and weekends I would also help on my father’s construction sites while at school and university.

    Most of these jobs would be classified as “menial and low-skilled.” But at each of those jobs, I learned something new and I brought that knowledge and skill with me to the next job. I learned technical skills as well as people skills, and how to work as part of a team. I learned firsthand the strength and dedication it takes to do manual labour and to work the land, efforts that are essential for thriving communities.

    Like my father and my father-in-law, I also gained an understanding about constructing homes and buildings which has been the foundation of my success in business later in life. Without the knowledge gained in earlier roles, the three of us may never have been able to grow our businesses, let alone participate in the various education, healthcare, and community building projects we have been involved in.

    When we use words like “menial” and “unskilled”, we undervalue the important and necessary contributions of our nation’s workers. Without these positions, our country would not thrive. We must value all work as an important element to the growth of our society and economy. Maimonides, a preeminent medieval philosopher, once said: “The greatest gift that we can give one another is the gift of work.”

    Let us accept this gift with grace and humility. Let us celebrate the dignity of all honest work.

    Barj Dhahan and parents

    With my mother and father