The Need to Improve Canadian Child Care

Canada's child care system is one of the worst in the Western world­ - isn't it time for a universal plan?

The Need to Improve Canadian Child CareOn the day that she found out that she was pregnant with her first child, Megan Riter did two things. First, she told her husband, Andrew. Then she placed herself on the waiting list at the University of British Columbia’s (UBC) child care centre. “I was only two weeks pregnant, and I knew we wouldn’t need it until our child was a toddler, but I also knew that I wouldn’t get a spot if I didn’t go on the list right away,” says the Richmond, B.C. mother, who works as an early childhood educator at UBC. Although she was dialled into the latest information on day care and made all the right moves, it hasn’t been an easy road. For the three and a half months after Megan went back to work following her year of maternity leave, the Riters relied heavily on both sets of grandparents, who live nearby, until their son, Sam, could enter the UBC centre. But even now, he’s only there part-time, as the full-time fees are too steep for the Riters’ income. So Andrew has taken weekend shifts in lieu of weekday ones at his job as a theatre lighting technician, Megan has taken time off, friends help out, and the grandparents have stepped in to care for Sam on the days when he’s home. “We just can’t swing full-time care,” says Riter. “It’s a scramble.”

Experts often use the word “patchwork” to describe Canada’s child care system, and Megan and Andrew’s example is just one patch on our nation’s crazy, checkered quilt. “We don’t really have a system. What we have is a bunch of little bits and pieces,” says Martha Friendly, director of the Toronto-based Childcare Resource and Research Unit (CRRU). Fourteen different jurisdictions are responsible for Canadian early childhood education and care: the ten provinces and three territories, plus the federal government. Each jurisdiction takes its own approach to a number of issues, from fees to staff training to monitoring. And within each province, parents are faced with a disparate and often confusing array of options, from informal arrangements, to unregulated in-home daycares, to licensed, community-based centres.

And as patchworks go, ours is not a very good one. Despite the fact that more than 70 per cent of mothers with children under the age of six are in the workforce, Canada’s system ranks very low (in both funding and access) amongst industrialized nations. In 2006, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) placed Canada dead last in public spending on early learning and child care. Canada also placed last in the rate of access to these programs for three- to six-year-olds — behind the Czech Republic, Hungary and Mexico. And the CRRU, using 2006 numbers, found that there is less than one space in a licensed child care centre for every five children between the ages of zero and five. They have also noted (in 2005) that more than 70 per cent of children with two parents (or a single parent) in the workforce were presumed to be in unregulated care.

That’s not to say that unregulated care, which often comes in the form of in-home neighbourhood daycares, is the same as bad care. After receiving a number of recommendations from friends in her church, Lisa Lethangue placed her daughter, Brooke, in a home daycare run by the pastor’s wife. The operation is small — usually four children, sometimes less. The woman who runs it has more than 20 years’ experience and is a nurse by trade, and the Aurora, Ont. mother couldn’t be happier with her daughter’s level of care. “Brooke loves it there. She’s excited to go, and when I pick her up at the end of the day she doesn’t want to leave,” says Lethangue. Meals are always healthy, the kids spend lots of time outside, learn their ABCs, make crafts, bake and have music time; each child’s birthday is celebrated with a big party. But Lethangue says her decision would have been much more difficult if her daycare provider was not a family friend. “You don’t know what goes on in someone’s home. There’s no standard, and people can put on a good show when you’re there to pick up your child,” she says.

And the unknown, observes Monica Lysack, executive director of the Ottawa-based Child Care Advocacy Association of Canada (CCAAC), is the biggest drawback with unlicensed care. “In unregulated child care, we don’t know anything. There’s no way to investigate; there’s nowhere to complain to,” says Lysack. Licensed, regulated care is administered by the provinces and territories, and is often privately run and takes place in homes or child care centres. Licensing provides at least a floor of assurance: criminal background checks, health and safety inspections, a guaranteed level of staff education and training, and outside monitoring. While they can be run for a profit, 80 per cent of licensed centres are nonprofit.

The ideal (within our system), says Lysack, is a nonprofit, community-run centre. Here, no one is scrimping on snacks or staff to make a buck, and parents have input and decision-making power. “For those who haven’t been in a child care centre, it conjures up that Oliver Twist image of kids dressed in gray, scrubbing floors,” says Lysack. But research, including a major study by the U.S. National Institute for Child Health and Human Development, have shown that good quality child care, together with great parental care, is better than parental care alone. Children learn and are socialized in a group setting, and benefit from the resources and facilities that a centre can provide, as well as the focus of the workers. “It’s amazing to see what happens in a good child care centre — to see the connection between kids and adults who have nothing else to do except engage with those children and prepare the environment for them,” says Lysack. “When it’s high quality, child care is completely focused on children’s developmental needs, and it’s a good place for them.”

But this kind of care doesn’t come cheap — good quality, licensed care in Canada (except Quebec) comes with a healthy price tag. Parents usually pay the bulk of the cost of care, and the fee for an infant or toddler place in a licensed centre in large urban areas like Toronto, Ottawa and Vancouver can range as high as $1,600 per month. Provinces offer subsidies, but these are based entirely on need and income, and reserved exclusively for low-income families. They also use Byzantine formulas that can leave parents scratching their heads — Megan Riter, who received a very low subsidy for a few months before being cut off for earning too much, calls her experiences navigating the B.C. subsidy system “a nightmare.”

But even if you do have the funds, a spot can be difficult to find. While working on her PhD at the University of Toronto (U of T), Marie-Hélène Budworth was fortunate enough to secure a place for her first son, Ethan, at the U of T’s renowned child care centre. But when Budworth accepted a faculty position at York University, the new commute meant that she had to find a space closer to home for then 17-month-old Ethan. After touring a number of places that she describes as “sad,” Budworth set her sights on the Pat Schulz Child Care Centre (PSCCC), which had been recommended by the director at the U of T centre. PSCCC is a licensed, nonprofit, community-run centre that uses a well-researched curriculum and insists upon a high level of training for staff. The fees are steep, but Budworth was willing and able to pay. Still, there was no spot available, so she signed up and sat on the waiting > list. She waited only a relatively short four months, a result, she says, of her persistence and repeated calls. Budworth now sits on the centre’s parental advisory board. “I hounded PSCCC, and the squeaky wheel gets the grease,” laughs Budworth. “I told them, “Look, my son is going to PSCCC — it’s just a matter of time. So when the next spot comes available you really want to think of me, because I’m just going to keep calling.”


All of this highlights the need for a universal system, something called for by national and international experts alike. Women form a critical part of the workforce; they have cracked the glass ceiling and are taking on leadership positions in all fields. No one will be turning back the clock, so our system must adjust, says Gordon Cleveland, a University of Toronto economist who has done a great deal of research on Canadian child care. “The need for child care relates to the fact that the world has changed,” he observes. And while Monica Lysack recognizes that the current government’s $100-per-month child care benefit (for each child under six) may be helpful for some families, it’s no substitute for a comprehensive system. “This is, “Here’s your hundred bucks, go solve your own problem,” she says.

Various prime ministers, from Trudeau to Mulroney to Martin, have proposed a universal system, but none have made good on their promises. One province, of course, has gone ahead and instituted universal child care, and when one compares Quebec to the rest of Canada, the numbers are staggering. Quebec parents pay just $7 a day for licensed centre- (or home-) based care. The province (using 2004 numbers) accounts for 43 per cent of all the regulated spaces in Canada; they allot more than $1.5 billion for child care, or $1,448 for each child between zero and 12 (compared with $258 in Ontario and just $104 in Alberta). “Quebec is the envy of the rest of Canada,” says Lysack. The main problem is in terms of access — waiting lists can be very long. “It’s not a perfect system. But when the biggest criticism is that there isn’t enough of it, and there’s still far more than there is anywhere else in Canada put together, that tells you something,” says Lysack.

There are glimmers of hope across the nation — including a promising pilot program administered by the city of Toronto and progressive legislation in Manitoba. And on a national scale, the New Democratic Party (NDP) has tabled a private members’ bill calling for a universal system. The proposed legislation has passed two readings and a standing committee, and is scheduled for a final vote in October. Bills introduced by a non-governing party (like this one) do not have a great track record of passage, but, if it does pass, it will be hard to ignore, says Olivia Chow, a prominent NDP member of parliament from Toronto, and champion of the bill. “There’s been a huge amount of research in the last 30 years, from scientists, doctors, economists, and educators,” says Chow. “They all say the same thing about quality child care: it’s a smart investment, it’s healthy for the productivity of our country, and most importantly, it’s good for our kids.”

Despite the problems he found in the Canadian child care system, contributing editor Tim Johnson notes that he was repeatedly informed that our nation’s daycare workers are amongst the best in the world.

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