Focus on the child, banish the booze

‘This is my fourth time up here and you still haven’t gotten your act together,” said Fraser Mustard, jabbing his finger at Liberal Leader Arthur Mitchell and independent MLA Brad Cathers.

‘This is my fourth time up here and you still haven’t gotten your act together,” said Fraser Mustard, jabbing his finger at Liberal Leader Arthur Mitchell and independent MLA Brad Cathers.

The two politicians were sitting across Yukon College’s bartender training room with child-development advocates. The strange venue was the site of a wine-and-cheese to open the Brains and Partnerships Conference.

Mustard, an 82-year-old doctor, was one of the keynote speakers addressing the small group of government, nonprofit, education and medical honchos plotting a revolution in how the territory handles the early years of a child’s life.

Studies have shown experiences in the womb and a baby’s first years shape a person’s trajectory through life. A growing number of experts are seeking to solve social problems, like chronic alcoholism, by turning research into policy.

Unfortunately, politicians keep getting in the way.

“They need to get off their asses,” said Mustard, cradling his cane in his lap. “The costs to Canadian society of not addressing early childhood development is $200 billion a year.”

Mustard is more than familiar with the numbers, and the problem.

He’s one of Canada’s preeminent medical experts and had a distinguished career in cardiovascular research and setting up research institutions. He followed that up by turning his attention to the lifelong impacts of a person’s earliest experiences.

As it turns out, everything from being touched enough to learning to speak at a young age can determine whether or not you will be mentally stable later on. Specifically, early childhood development can determine whether you might turn to booze and drugs to resolve psychological problems in the future.

Building well-rounded children is far cheaper than babysitting chronic alcoholic adults. Unfortunately, there’s little political will for taking early action.

Mustard has lobbied governments from Ontario to Yukon for 15 years, with little effect.

Despite the respect he commands in policy circles, governments seem incapable or unwilling to implement his advice.

“Greenland does better than our territories in the North,” he said.

Mustard is especially disappointed in the Yukon because of its potential.

A place this small could reform its medical and educational institutions faster than a province, he said. And then the result could be exported to the rest of the country.

The Yukon has a drinking problem. Some might even call it a crisis. The recent deaths of Raymond Silverfox in police custody and Robert Stone in detox have highlighted the emotional, psychological and financial costs of reckless boozing.

But early childhood development rarely makes it on the menu of possible solutions.

“The legislators just don’t embrace it,” said Mustard.

Countries like Cuba, Finland and Sweden all have radically different education and health approaches that centre on child development.

They’ve followed the scientists, teachers and social workers who have been embracing the critical function of early childhood life for years.

The human brain is like a muscle, they say. But instead of developing physical strength, your experiences from inside the womb and the first five years of your life will develop your ability to love, to think, to handle stress and pain and how far you can grow intellectually.

For example, a baby who lives in a violent and dysfunctional home will often experience stress. This releases cortisol in the brain, a hormone meant to calm you down. Down the road, an overproduction of cortisol can lead to behavioral problems, diabetes, memory impairment and alcohol and drug addictions, research has shown.

The neural pathways that develop in infancy and early childhood don’t change easily later in life. That means a baby in a bad home could already be destined for a life of failed grades, low income, mental illness and unhappiness before they’re in kindergarten.

Research by the Kaiser Permanente organization in California found children who experience neglect and abuse were at a higher risk of drug and alcohol abuse.

The research is making its way to politicians’ and policymakers’ desks at a snail’s pace.

Last month marked the first evaluation of the developmental health of Yukon children, sponsored by the Education Department.

It found 38 per cent of Yukon five-year-olds are vulnerable, which means they are developing behavioral problems that will cap their learning abilities, said Joanne Schroeder, the acting deputy director of the Human Early Learning Partnership in Vancouver.

The partnership has been running these surveys with school teachers for 10 years in British Columbia. The Yukon is about the size of a BC school district, and the range for those districts go from 12 per cent vulnerable to 60 per cent.

“When you look at it in that context, it’s not the worst story,” said Schroeder, who also attended the Yukon College conference with Mustard.

The research in BC and other provinces is allowing the partnership to track the success of students who have early behavioral problems.

“On average, vulnerability in kindergarten means less success in school,” she said. “The initial data coming out of Grade 4 shows that the kids who had vulnerabilities in kindergarten, over 50 per cent of them are not meeting the expectations of Grade 4.”

The hope for these researchers is that one day policymakers will get over looking at human problems in isolation, from poverty to alcoholism to mental illness.

The science is speaking holism, but the institutions are stuck in compartmentalization.

Mustard wants a department of human development to replace Education and Health, something akin to what Cuba has been doing for decades. The island nation, which runs family and child development centres called polyclinics, has some of the best health and education figures in the Americas.

Holism is engrained in human nature, said Schroeder. A mother and father know how to tend to their child and provide a safe environment where the brain can develop.

But modern pressures have changed that model. Women work, families break up and kids watch too much television.

“One of the things we have definitely gotten away from in the last 40 to 50 years is a sense of community and people taking collective responsibility for children,” said Schroeder. “It was much more common for people to have their extended families nearby. It was much less common for both parents to be working.”

Some provinces are beginning to implement research after mulling over the teacher survey results. British Columbia runs a program called Strong Start. The Yukon began its own program, called Learning Together, last month.

More than 600 programs were created across the country after provinces saw the outcome of their respective surveys, said Schroeder.

But the big-picture solution of creating an infrastructure focused on development isn’t here yet. It’s the type of thing the Yukon could experiment with, with more ease than a province, said Mustard.

An integrated system of centres to develop children’s mental and physical well-being would cost $22 billion for the whole country, according to Mustard’s research.

Until then, places like the Yukon are dealing with alcoholism downstream, rather than doing it more cheaply at its source.

“No one is interested in the quality of future generations,” said Mustard.

Contact James Munson at