Canada: The battle over child care

Written by Carma Hassan, Special to CNN Amid growing bipartisan interest in reforming child care, Canada’s provinces have been embroiled in a 10-year, near-constant battle. Ontario, the country’s most populous province, has yet to…

Canada: The battle over child care

Written by Carma Hassan, Special to CNN

Amid growing bipartisan interest in reforming child care, Canada’s provinces have been embroiled in a 10-year, near-constant battle. Ontario, the country’s most populous province, has yet to sign a national agreement with the other 10 provinces, and Ottawa insists that a “federal-provincial accord” must be in place before it approves a national child care plan.

In response, Ontario has started to set its own goals. Although the city of Toronto plans to bring in 4,500 new subsidized places in a 5-year plan, Ontario is also pushing for a national agreement for child care from the federal government — and points to Britain, where it signed a similar accord with the provinces, as an example.

Daniel J. Schneider, a lead child care policy adviser at UNICEF Canada, hopes that parents can see a positive side to all this — and that Canada’s provinces will look at good examples like Britain, Germany and the Netherlands and eventually reach a consensus.

“There’s a lot of debate going on,” says Schneider. “But when you look at the workable solutions (like those seen in the UK) , there’s a good approach.”

Unfortunately, that optimistic point of view is not being well received in Ottawa, where it’s been associated with “extremist” or “partisan” politics, and the Federal Liberal government has repeatedly vowed to block provincial governments from implementing their own child care programs and or laws.

Poldark Rowntree Childcare Centre in London, England, one of the country’s child care program’s success stories. Credit: Malcolm Strickland/Corbis via Getty Images

While the Safe Space Coalition, a coalition of child care centers from various parts of Canada, believes that parental anxiety regarding the proposed agreement is justified, it also emphasizes that child care is a “really central” issue for “every single parent,” and argues that the federal government should be looking toward ways to “institutionalize” free access to child care and early learning programs across the country.

It’s the third time that child care has been stuck in a bureaucratic stalemate: In late 2017, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced a plan to federally fund universal child care, but the program was then rebranded a year later as the Canada Child Benefit and has yet to launch.

After the federal government chose not to subsidize universal child care, the parties working on a national accord showed their impatience by passing emergency legislation to introduce the first mandatory child care plan in Canada’s history — and then withdrawing the bill from Parliament entirely.

Confronting an existing provincial child care system that grants approximately $15 billion to nongovernmental organizations instead of direct subsidies, Toronto City Council introduced its own Child Care Licensing Amendment Act in May 2016, which aims to subsidize child care providers and purchase additional spaces and facilities.

“They proposed these plans and believe they’re a good thing, and it makes sense that they want to get it right,” says Schneider. “But they just need the federal government to recognize and embrace that.”

The seemingly competing narratives around Canada’s child care system and its national discourse have two unifying goals: letting Canadians know that child care and early learning programs should be as widely available and affordable as school facilities, and that Canada’s different countries need to work together to make that happen.

Schneider has a simple suggestion: “First, let’s set the path, but once the road map has been laid out, let’s get the government onboard.”

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