History Repeats: Undermining Child Care in Ontario

In June 1974, Margaret Birch—Ontario’s then-Provincial Secretary for Social Development—delivered a proposal to the legislature to slash the costs of childcare in the province. The so-called Birch Proposals included reductions in minimum staff-child ratios, the elimination of the required formal qualifications for most staff, the elimination of the requirement that day nurseries have kitchens on site, and altered licensing procedures pertaining to physical standards of care sites.

The day care community across Ontario rose up in opposition. One of the important outcomes of this opposition was the establishment of the Daycare Reform Action Alliance, which contested the Birch Proposals in part with a newsletter called Good Daycare that provided information, stories, and calls for support to fight the proposals and improve the quality of daycare in Ontario and elsewhere.

Image from the cover of the Winter 1975 issue of Good Daycare

(The image features five cartoon children standing in line, with the child at the back of the line reaching up to a sign reading: “Government-Approved Day Care Centre. Please take a number and wait in line.”)

The Daycare Reform Action Alliance and others advocating for childcare in the province suspected that Margaret Birch and her department had been heavily lobbied by commercial stakeholders, namely a new private day care chain called Mini-Skools. Mini-Skools, which was opening a number of day care centres, had been calling for the same reduced staff-child ratios, staff qualifications, and other changes to regulations found in the Birch Proposals, ostensibly to improve its bottom line.
Ultimately, the Daycare Reform Action Alliance and other supporters won the fight (p. 6 of .pdf). Given the significant community opposition to the Birch Proposals, the government appointed an Advisory Council on Daycare, which issued a report condemning the recommendations of the Birch Proposals. The Advisory Council report, together with counter-lobbying, organizing, and demonstrations, led to the Birch Proposals being defeated.

The new private day care chain that had lobbied for the Birch Proposals was well-known for failing to pay its workers a living wage. This button, featuring a chalkboard-style design and reading “Mini-Skools Pays Mini Wages,” dates from the fall of 1982 when Mini Skools workers went on strike for higher wages.

Forty-six years later, the Ford Government has proposed regulatory revisions that will adversely impact the quality of childcare in the province. The regulatory changes being proposed include—just as the Birch Proposals did—reductions in staff-child ratios and significant changes in who counts as a “qualified employee”. Furthermore, the new proposals include plans to change how children are grouped within childcare facilities, to establish an unlicensed child care registry (that will not involve “oversight or regulation”), and to remove time limits from before- and after- school recreation programs that would effectively allow them to serve as child care without the relevant licensing and qualification requirements.

In 2021, just as occurred in 1974, there is widespread critique of the Ford government’s proposals, and a campaign against the proposed changes. In a report entitled “An Insult to Educators, Children, and Families”, the Ontario Coalition for Better Childcare and the Association of Early Childhood Educators present the findings of their survey of educators and families, which reflect overwhelming opposition to the proposed changes. The Ontario Coalition for Better Childcare has also developed campaign materials for those able to advocate for child care with their Members of Provincial Parliament. Further, a study conducted by the City of Toronto that included consultations with parents, with school boards, and a number of other stakeholder groups found that “the changes would have a negative impact on quality, and would undermine efforts to raise the bar on the reputation of the profession of early childhood education.”

Although the new proposals to undermine the quality of childcare in Ontario are strikingly similar to failed proposals of the past, there is something different this time: the federal government’s recent commitment to strengthening childcare in its Speech from the Throne, and the challenges facing childcare centres and the families they support during COVID-19. According to an article for Behind the Numbers:

“Further consultation on these proposals is clearly unnecessary. Thousands of parents, educators and community members have made their views felt time and time again. But now—precisely when community strength is at its weakest, when child care directors are struggling just to keep their doors open, when parents are juggling sick days, COVID-19 testing, and their jobs—the Ontario government is trying to push through these insidious changes that undermine our children’s care.”

Carolyn Ferns, Ontario Coalition for Better Child Care

The consultation period on the proposed changes closed in November, and the outcomes are not yet known. Still, the campaign against the proposals is ongoing as advocates continue to work, as they always have, to maintain and improve the quality of childcare in Ontario.

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