It’s not hard to find examples of policy in which the Harper government has acted against the best interests of women, but some do stand out as most significant. Canada’s lack of affordable child care is a shameless attack on women’s equality and a barrier to eradicating child poverty.
In 2005, when Stephen Harper took office, we were on the precipice of a historic step forward towards equality: a national child care system. Decades of advocacy, momentum, and the voices of thousands of parents speaking out had finally started to be heard at the federal level. There were signed agreements with each province to develop a national child care system. The fight wasn’t over, but this meant real funds flowing to provinces to expand their programs—more spaces, more affordable parent fees, and fair wages for the hard-working staff in the field. Three hours after being sworn in, Harper’s first act as prime minister was to cancel the national child care program.
Canada: last on child care
Decades of work and a program that would have benefited thousands of Canadian children were thrown out and replaced with a $100/month taxable benefit. In the seven years since, Canada has spent roughly $15 billion on this “benefit.” It has not created a single child care space, has not helped improve quality in a single program, and does not help families afford the care they need.
Canada is ranked last among OECD nations for investments in the early years and has been shamed by the UN who note that a nation as wealthy as ours should be able to do better by our children. Canada has signed the UN Declaration on the Rights of the Child, yet public policy goes against it and the Government continues to blatantly dismiss the recommendations of the UN committee.
It has been almost 30 years since Supreme Court Justice Rosalie Abella stated that “child care is the ramp that provides equal access to the workforce for mothers. in the Royal Commission on Equality in Employment. Children whose mothers fought for affordable child care and an expansion in spaces are now having children of their own and facing an even tougher situation.
The UN also recommends an investment of one per cent of the GDP in early childhood education. The OECD puts Canada’s investment in early childhood education at just 0.3 per cent. The result: only about 20 per cent of kids in Canada have access to a licensed child care space (in either a home or centre setting). Licensing assures public oversight into the quality of programming and learning environment. It also ensures supports and professional development opportunities for staff.
While only one in five children are in a licensed space, we know the majority of parents are working. Over the course of the 20th century the number of mothers in the paid workforce has increased dramatically. 75 per cent of women with a child between the ages of three and five are in the paid workforce, as are the majority of women with a younger child. Social policy has not caught up to these cultural shifts. Child care is essential for parents to work and/or pursue further education.
Downloading responsibility, blaming women
So where are the other 80 per cent of our kids? Essentially, Harper’s current public policy is that we don’t know and we don’t care. Some families have the option of care from a relative and a small proportion of mothers still choose to stay home. But, in the absence of a universal public system, the vast majority of children are in unregulated child care situations.
There is just one law pertaining to these providers: they may only care for the maximum number of children set out by their province. There are no requirements for First Aid or CPR training, or training in early childhood education and development (which there is in licensed child care). There are absolutely no requirements for site inspections to ensure a safe environment (licensed child care programs, in both centre and home settings, are inspected regularly).
It is important to note that there are high quality unregulated programs with dedicated providers, mainly women, who care greatly about the education they provide. Many are trained and pursue professional development opportunities. But, in the absence of a public system, there is no way to separate the exceptional programs from the horrifying. In many jurisdictions there are financial disincentives for home care providers to become licensed. In most cases, parents do not know whether or not their child’s care is licensed or the training of their provider.
What’s worse, when tragedy strikes in an unlicensed program, politicians are quick to blame parent choice as advocates call for a review of the system. Where is the choice in a system that excludes 80 per cent of families?
The expensive hand of the market
Worse still, in the absence of a public system, child care remains a market based sector and programs often exist in isolation. In recent years as funding has stalled, fees have skyrocketed. Parent fees, for those who are lucky enough to secure a spot, are now more than the quickly disappearing so-called “middle class” can afford.
Child care fees can rage from $40-60 per day per child according to most experts. But in many areas they are far higher. Infant care (the first point of entry for parents in to this system) is above $90 per day in many Canadian cities. This means a family with just two children can see child care fees of over $30,000 per year.
In today’s economy, most families must have two incomes just to get by, and yet the lack of spaces and huge costs of care often force one parent—almost always a woman—to stay home. Time spent out of the workforce, including loss of seniority and pension accrual, has significant impacts on lifetime earnings and retirement prospects. In the case of single women, having a child is often a poverty sentence. And we wonder why Canada continues to have a 28 per cent gender pay gap and our child poverty rate is persistent?
We talk about Canada having a universal public education system, and yet the majority of our earliest learners are completely left behind. In the years when most brain development takes place most of our kids have no access to early childhood education programs. When you’re an eight year-old in Canada, you have the right to go to school (though this is undermined by poverty, especially for indigenous and racialized communities). But when you are a two year old, you don’t even have this basic right.
It’s time to stop thinking of child care as a fringe program and realize how important it is to our children’s development and our economy—now dependent on women’s labour.
It can be different
While the federal government maintains its dismal record on child care, some provinces have taken action to make change. In 1997 Quebec began building a universal child care program. Initially reducing fees to $5/day (now $7), Quebec has also created spots. Early childhood educators and child care workers are also on average the highest paid in Canada and there is a provincial pension program.
While there are undoubtedly lessons to be learned from this program and work to be done, it is stark contrast with the state of child care in the rest of the country and provides an example of where we could be moving. Following the example of Quebec, Manitoba has also worked to reduce child care fees (which are currently under $20 per day), ensured decent wages for staff, and created a provincial pension plan. In both cases, tax revenues from parents’ ability to work has proven to cover a huge portion of the investment required to create the programs, and long-term gains are even greater. In the first ten years, Quebec saw their child poverty rate drop by 50% per cent and 70,000 mothers enter the paid workforce.
Across the country, despite the decimation of funding for organizations, the child care movement remains committed. A new generation of advocates—parents and Early Childhood Educators—is rising and unwilling to accept the status quo. Advocacy groups point to Quebec and Manitoba in lobbying their provincial governments to take action on the child care crisis.
In BC, there is currently a campaign for $10/day child care. Through grassroots organizing and outreach to the community, advocates from Coalition of Child Care Advocates of BC and the Early Childhood Educators of BC have received thousands of endorsements for the plan. Endorsements come from municipalities, school boards, trade unions, parents, and even boards of trade. The public support is overwhelming. They have gained such broad attention that both parties have released platforms on child care and early childhood education – falling far short of the plan proposed by advocates. While the NDP has more strongly supported investment, as of yet their position is not to endorse the plan. There’s no doubt that this will be a central issue in the provincial election in BC this spring.
As we move towards the federal election in 2015, it is critical that a national child care program continue to be a focus for activists. For the Liberals, child care was one of the most poplar policies they ever had, even if they failed to implement it despite being in power for a dozen years. Meanwhile, universal affordable child care has been central to NDP policy for decades, and cannot be allowed to disappear now.