Campaigning for Child Care

It’s been nearly 50 years(!) since the Royal Commission on the Status of Women report was tabled. However, the Day-Care Act recommended by the Royal Commission in 1970 is no closer in 2017 – almost 70 years later:

“We recommend that the federal government immediately take steps to enter into agreement with the provinces leading to the adoption of a national Day-Care Act under which federal funds would be made available on a cost-sharing basis for the building and running of day-care centres meeting specified minimum standards, the federal government to (a) pay half the operating costs; (b) during an initial seven-year period, pay 70 per cent of capita/ costs; and (c) make similar arrangements for the Yukon and Northwest Territories”.

After four decades of hard campaigning and lobbying by women’s groups, labour groups, professional groups, child care centres, parents, and organizations in every part of Canada, there have been only two substantive developments: First – the good news! Quebec established and delivered a system of affordable child care and, second – the bad news! Hundreds of broken promises by politicians.

In 1970, when child care advocates began to make their voices heard, the traditional thinking was that parents should be solely responsible for their own children; that the state had no role to play with preschoolers and should only step in in cases of responding to the welfare of the child; that mothers – and they did think mothers – should stay at home with their children at least until they reached school age, and if they had to go to work, a cheap babysitter would be an appropriate solution. Definitely not the State! Since then, advocates have had a huge impact on changing this kind of thinking: high-quality child care is now broadly viewed as important for early childhood development; both mothers and fathers, at least verbally, are encouraged to join the workforce; and there is growing recognition that early childhood education should be publicly funded just as the education system is funded because of the importance of the first five years.

Child care advocates persevered, resulting in incremental expansion of spaces and subsidies, province by province, even if childcare was still largely inaccessible and unaffordable in most places across the country. There was no shortage of activity, vision, and imagination by advocates. Numerous demonstrations, petitions, postcard campaigns, election campaigns, occupations, media stunts, etc. characterized the era.

Aside from political and ideological opposition from the Conservatives, the biggest barrier to implementing a national child care program is the huge cost. Both federally and provincially, governments are extremely reluctant to step forward and foot a bill that will probably amount to more than $20 billion a year – for children up to the age of 5 alone.

It’s true there have been three attempts by federal governments to set up a national child care plan or strategy:

  • In 1986 the Task Force on Child Care (Katie Cooke Task Force) was set up under the Liberal Government resulting in a Task Force Report that recommended establishing a national universal child care program in which child care was funded along the lines of the health and education systems. But this report was shelved after the Liberals lost the election and were succeeded by a Conservative Government.
  • At least the advocates had managed to put the issue of child care firmly on the agenda; promises were made during the election campaign so when elected, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney established a Special Parliamentary Committee on Child Care to study the issue. The report from the Committee engendered a vibrant debate across the country about whether funding should be funneled through a system of tax credits to individuals (versus direct funding to services) and whether federal dollars should go to commercial operations – a departure from the past policy of the federal government. Led by the Canadian Day Care Advocacy Association and supported by advocates, activists, and organizations across the country, there was a huge campaign to defeat Bill C-144, which was introduced to turn the recommendations of this Report into reality. This Child Care Act also died on the eve of the election call.
  • Finally, the Liberal Government elected under the leadership of Paul Martin in 2004, appointed Ken Dryden as the Minister with a mandate to introduce a National Child Care Plan. Under the title of “The Foundations Program”, negotiations between the federal government and the provinces focused on working out the details. By the end of 2005, 10 agreements were in place, and money was just about to flow to create the new national program when the government fell and the Paul Martin Liberals were replaced by the Conservatives under Stephen Harper.

And that was the end of any plans to create a national child care program in Canada. Stephen Harper moved quickly – in fact, it was his first public act in office – to cancel these bilateral agreements, and as Martha Friendly named it,  “The Foundations Program was another close-but-no-cigar call for Canadian child care”.

At the close of 2016, there is still a huge gap between the need for and accessibility to child care. Increasingly, parents are finding the cost out of reach and in many provinces children who meet the eligibility criteria for a “subsidy” can’t get one because there is insufficient funding. Only in Quebec is child care really affordable where parents earning under $50,500 pay only $7.55 per day, rising to $21.00 by the time family income reaches $159,000.

The report, Early Childhood Education in Canada, 2014 found that:

  • The employment rate of mothers with children aged 0-2 was 70%, 77% for those with 3-5-year-olds, and 82% for mothers with 6-15-year-olds.
  • There were 1.2 million regulated child care spaces for 0-12-year-olds
  • This meant there were enough regulated spaces to accommodate 24.1 of 0-5-year-olds in centres.

The Women’s Movement, along with many men, has always been at the forefront of the leadership of the child care movement, and it looks as if women (with the support of men) will have to keep on struggling for a while longer before the recommendations of the Royal Commission on the Status of Women become a reality for Canadian parents and children.