In Canada, a historic move towards a nationwide childcare system draws praise, and criticism

In Canada, a historic move towards a nationwide childcare system draws praise, and criticism

Childcare is currently delivered by a mix of commercial, charitable, religious and non-profit providers in Canada.

(Brian Atkinson/Alamy Stock Photo)

As in many other countries, government-mandated nursery and school closures during the Covid-19 pandemic pushed many women to the sidelines of Canada’s economy. The pandemic drove women’s participation in the workforce to its lowest level in three decades, with more than 16,000 women dropping out of the country’s labour force by spring of last year.

The pandemic’s impact on women’s labour participation was a major factor behind the Canadian government’s announcement last April that it would create a nationwide, affordable childcare system after decades of lobbying by trade unions and childcare activists. With the exception of Quebec, which has had a universal, affordable childcare system since 1997, childcare is currently delivered by a mix of commercial, charitable, religious and non-profit providers in Canada. Fees vary but in Toronto, the most expensive city for childcare, it can cost around $1,600 CAD (€1,148) a month for a toddler.

“Covid-19 has brutally exposed something women have long known: without childcare, parents – usually mothers – can’t work,” Canadian finance minister Chrystia Freeland said, announcing the $27 CAD (€20.6) billion investment, which was part of the government’s larger pandemic recovery plan.

As Canada’s provinces and territories are responsible for most aspects of childcare, the federal government needed to strike a dozen deals with provincial governments across the country to enact its plan. In May, Ontario became the last province to sign a childcare funding deal with the federal administration. In addition to creating a country-wide childcare system, the agreements aim to slash the costs of early learning and childcare for parents by bringing fees for subsidised childcare down to roughly $10 CAD (€7.60) per day by 2025 for children under the age of six.

“What the federal government has done to each province is [to say]: we want you to get down to an average of $10 CAD dollars a day over the course of the next few years,” explains Adrienne Davidson, an assistant professor of political science at McMaster University in Ontario.

Though financial and practical bumps lie ahead, childcare employers, advocates, academics and trade unionists welcomed the funding agreements. “Canada’s unions are pleased that the federal government came to terms with every province and territory on affordable childcare. We are on the right path toward having Canada-wide affordable early learning and childcare in place,” Canadian Labour Congress president Bea Bruske tells Equal Times. The union has long advocated for universal, public-funded childcare in Canada and has run campaigns to improve childcare for decades.

“Canadians must be vigilant that affordable childcare is enshrined in law and backed by sustainable funding to expand the system to ensure all parents access the system equitably,” Bruske adds.

What makes Canada’s nation-wide affordable childcare system unique is the 50-50 share of childcare costs between the federal government and provincial governments provided for under the five-year agreements. This sharing agreement is meant to speed up the delivery of affordable childcare by allowing provinces to quickly deploy local budgets towards childcare subsidies when childcare needs unexpectedly or rapidly shift and recouping the costs from the federal government at a later stage.

All 13 childcare funding deals have different emphases. “There is so much variation between provinces and how they are approaching childcare delivery. When we talk of national childcare programmes, it’s really 13 different programmes,” says Davidson.

The different local programmes nevertheless share common characteristics, namely that the federal government provides half the funding; the provinces provide the remainder and also manage the combined budget; while local municipalities are responsible for enrolling licensed centres and agencies into the new system.

Victim of its own success

Before Quebec put in place its universal childcare system, women’s participation in the local labour force market was four points lower than in the rest of Canada. Today, it is four points higher , with women in the province having some of the world’s highest employment rates, according to figures from the Canadian government. The government explicitly cited Quebec as a model for its universal childcare system when it announced its landmark plan.

Quebec’s subsidised childcare system helped parents, and especially women, remain in the workforce during the Covid-19 pandemic, according to a report from the Canada Center for Policy Alternatives. Quebec’s local government ordered non-profit low-fee childcare centres to remain open to accommodate the children of healthcare providers and other workers in essential services. Though Covid-19 had an impact on many household budgets across Canada, Quebec childcare centres also experienced small drops in enrolment, if any. Meanwhile, for-profit childcare centres in other parts of Canada saw decreases in enrolment of 20 per cent or higher.

Quebec’s affordable childcare system, at the same time, has also been the victim of its own success as the demand for the subsidised spots from parents has exceeded the available offer. According to Andrea Hannen, executive director of the Association of Day Care Operators of Ontario (ADCO), around 56,000 children are currently on a waiting list for an affordable care spot in Quebec.

Petr Varmuza is convinced Quebec’s waitlist problems will repeat themselves in Ontario and other Canadian provinces as the country moves toward a universal childcare system. He is a former Toronto childcare official now conducting research on equity of access to childcare at the University of Toronto. “By the time the $10-a-day debuts, there will be 300,000 new spaces required [as a result of the forecasted, increased demand that will be generated by lower child-care fees]. And the government can only make provisions for about 86,000 spaces,” he tells Equal Times.

According to Varmuza, Quebec as well as other places that have adopted universal childcare systems have moreover seen high-income families take up most of the low-cost spots. “That’s what has happened elsewhere and it’s going to happen here as well,” he says, adding that parents in Ontario’s capital of Toronto are likely to have to wait several years to secure a subsidised childcare spot.

That is because wealthier families tend to live in suburbs with a higher number of childcare centres, while low-income families tend to live in so-called childcare ‘deserts’, he explains, adding that the risk exists that even more spots will be created or existing childcare facilities expanded in upper-income neighbourhoods. He nevertheless notes that the Canada-Ontario childcare agreement requires the province to make credible investments in the creation of childcare spaces in underserved urban neighbourhoods, rural areas and remote territories occupied by Indigenous people.

Lessons from Canada

Public policy experts and childcare advocates say there are lessons – both positive and negative – to be drawn from Canada’s approach to rolling out a nationwide, affordable childcare system.

Davidson, the McMaster University public policy expert, notes that Canada’s affordable childcare system illustrates the importance of prioritising the welfare of early-childhood educators, especially at a time of rampant global inflation. “We have seen during the pandemic a huge loss of staff from childcare teaching. Low pay is a barrier to staying,” Davidson says. According to government figures, the median wage for childcare workers in Canada is $19.20 (€14.6) per hour.

Karen Brown, president of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario, describes the recently concluded Ontario childcare agreement as a step in the right direction, but notes that childcare offered through before- and after-school programmes within Ontario public school boards is excluded from the agreement. “That means that parents who need to use childcare centres within public schools for continuity of care are not eligible for the subsidy,” she says, adding that the agreement also raises concerns about the working conditions and wages of early childhood educators. “Decent work should be the foundation of Ontario’s early learning and childcare plan. If we don’t address the workforce issues and chronic staffing shortages facing the childcare sector, then we will simply not have staff in place to meet the requirements for the newly created spaces.”

This was echoed by Bert Blundon, president of Canada’s National Union of Public and General Employees. “A robust, qualified, and well-compensated workforce is essential to high-quality childcare,” he tells Equal Times. Pointing out that Canada’s childcare workforce is predominantly staffed by women and racialised workers and that it has long been chronically underpaid and undersupported, he says:

“There need to be genuine, well-funded efforts in which workers and childcare experts are involved, to significantly expand the workforce, address recruitment and retention issues, and to ensure fair wages, benefits, and working conditions for childcare staff.”

For Morna Ballantyne, executive director of Childcare Now, a Canadian childcare advocacy organisation, it is essential that more licensed childcare spaces are created in communities that are today underserved. “What happens is [private childcare operators] put childcare programmes in places where they think they will be financially viable,” she notes. “They choose communities where they are most likely to charge high fees and keep high enrolment.”

In rural and remote north parts of Canada, many low-income families have no access to affordable childcare, Ballantyne notes. If childcare programmes remain market commodities, truly accessible and equitable childcare systems will not be realised, she adds. “We are saying there should be a maximum fee of $10. The cost for lower-income families should be less than $10.”

This story was supported by the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung.