VICTORIA – As Katrine Conroy, Minister of Children and Family Development, prepares to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Early Childhood Educators of BC at a national conference in Vancouver, she cannot help but reflect on how she has come full circle to her first passion for early childhood education.
“Kids learn the most from birth to five years old,” Conroy said. “Historically, we’ve spent the least amount of money ensuring those kids get the best supports and education we can give them.”
When she was elected in May 2017 and Premier John Horgan made her minister, she was determined to change that.
“We heard very clearly how important child care is to people – and good quality child care is not a babysitting service,” said Conroy. “You can walk into a kindergarten and tell which kids had good quality early childhood education.”
As early as high school, Conroy knew she wanted to teach young children.
She had always loved and cared for kids, including her younger brother and sister. At 20, she fell in love and became stepmom to her new partner’s two young children.
At the time, she was working at the local pulp mill as one of B.C.’s first female power engineers.
With her shifts at the mill and her husband’s work as a tug boat operator, they never saw each other – so she decided to go back to school.
In 1979, she graduated from the first-ever early childhood education (ECE) program developed at Selkirk College in Castlegar, which was also the first regional community college in British Columbia.
She says she loved learning about psychology, about what makes young brains work and about parenting techniques. She made lifelong friendships and realized she enjoyed the coursework around program planning and administration, which she would put to good use in the future.
She completed her first practicum at Kootenay Columbia Child Care Society, the same child care centre where her mother had been a founding board member and treasurer in the 1970s.
The society then opened a child care centre called Hobbit Hill.
“My father used to run marathons to raise money to support the centre,” Conroy said, revealing the history of community involvement in her genes.
“It’s hard to believe now, but back in the 1970s, there were actually protests when the community got wind that women were going to open up this child care centre. People didn’t want one in their neighbourhood. Mothers were supposed to stay home and look after kids.”
They built Hobbit Hill from a bunkhouse originally used to house workers for the Celgar pulp mill.
It was two storeys. One storey housed a program for special needs kids and the other was for three-to-five-year-olds, with about 24 kids up and 12 down.
She began substituting there and sat on the society’s board when her own children, Sasha and Ben, came along.
It wasn’t long before she was hired into a full-time ECE position. Eventually, she became the administrator for Kootenay Columbia Childcare Society, a non-profit hub of family services, which is what became the Kootenay Family Place. “Initially, we had a budget of a couple of hundred thousand dollars,” Conroy said. “When I left, the budget was over a million. We owned five centres outright – with no mortgage on any of them and we offered 15 different programs.”
Working with families and managing family life gave her a front-row seat into the juggling act that finding good child care demands.
She taught in the ECE program at Selkirk College, and went back to work as the administrator of Kootenay Family Place just three months after her young son was born.
“It was 1984, and my husband was laid off from the forest industry. One day, I came home from work and he exclaimed in exasperation, ‘I can’t do this any more!’”
After that, she was lucky to find a child care saviour named Olga to look after baby Ben.
Today, Olga still works for Kootenay Family Place in the Family Resource Program. “I didn’t want to quit work,” said Conroy. “To this day, our son and now our youngest grandchildren still think Olga is the ‘bees’ knees.’
“Whether we like it or not, we haven’t come too far since the 1970s when it comes to who’s mostly responsible for caring for the kids. Affordable child care enables women to get back to work in a way that nothing else does. It’s an economic driver and that’s been proven in Quebec, which has the highest female participation in the labour market. Through Childcare BC, over just the past 18 months, we’ve put over $90 million back into the pockets of B.C. parents and that’s pretty incredible.
No other initiative in government has done that. It has changed peoples’ lives, especially in British Columbia where life had become so unaffordable for young families.”
When she looks back at this time and launching Childcare BC with Katrina Chen, Minister of State for Child Care, what will stand out, Conroy said, “is the fact that we’re actually doing it! We’re creating child care spaces. We’re working with communities and parents and early childhood educators to start the transition to a system of care. We’re providing bursaries to get more early childhood educators. We’re proving it can work.”