In 1983 Mary-Lou Delesalle, a Montreal teacher of autistic children, registered her child on a day care waiting list—three months before he was born. But even that was not early enough for her to be able to have young Jason in day care when she wanted to return to work two months after his birth. “They kept telling me, ‘You’re fourth on the list,’ then, ‘You’re ninth on the list,’ ” recalled Delesalle, 39. “I was on that list for over a year.” Meanwhile, she found “this 80-year-old woman who minded kids in her home” to look after Jason until she was able to place him in a well-run, provincially licensed day care centre two months ago, at the age of 3. But the search for quality child care has left her frustrated and angry. Said Delesalle: “There are so many things wrong with the system that it makes me ill.”
Strain: Many working mothers across Canada say that they share Delesalle’s feelings. There are about 200,000 registered day care spaces across the countrywhile an estimated 2 V2 million Canadian children with working parents receive unlicensed care from babysitters of varying, mainly unmeasured skills. And the problem is getting worse. During the 1960s and 1970s, according to Lynne Westlake, the co-ordinator of the Ottawa-based Canadian Day Care Advocacy Association, many pregnant women quit their jobs and looked after their children at home for several years before returning to work. But now, she said, more women are choosing to take short leaves of absence instead of quitting their jobs. And as a result, increasing numbers are seeking placement for their infants and young children—and that demand has increased the strain on already overloaded day care centres.
Statistics Canada figures show that in 1986, 56 per cent of women with
children three years of age or younger were in the labor force. By contrast, only 30 per cent of the mothers in a parallel group were in the labor force 10 years ago. Said Westlake: “Suddenly, mothers with children under the age of three are flooding into the workplace.”
The growing demand for placement
has inevitably put pressure on the provincial governments, which are responsible for licensing and regulating day care. But provincial ministers in charge of day care say that they cannot make a move until the federal government announces its funding policy, which it had promised to do by last June. Declared Muriel Hemphill, Manitoba’s minister for community services: “We get a sense that there is disagreement at the federal level.” Split: Hemphill’s suspicions have some foundation. According to Conservative party strategists, the federal cabinet remains split on the nature and extent of Ottawa’s contributions to day care and on such related issues
as the best means of providing additional funds to poorer regions of the country. More than eight months ago federal Health Minister Jake Epp set a deadline of June 30 for unveiling Ottawa’s plans—but those plans have yet to materialize. Said Epp, in a comment that underscored his party’s determination to reach a consensus with the provinces: “We want to do it in the spirit of Meech Lake.”
Tax: Still, there are some indications of the day care policy that Ottawa is likely to adopt. Last March the Conservative members on a special all-party parliamentary committee studying child care called for a new, $700million-a-year program. The report recommended channelling most of that proposed funding —$414 million—into tax credits that would provide money for the poorest parents. In addition, the committee proposed modest tax credits— $200 for the first child, $100 for the second and $50 for each additional child —for families where one parent stays home to care for the children. But opposition Liberal and New § Democratic members of s the committee criticized those proposals, arguing that extra tax breaks would not solve the most serious child care problem: a shortage of affordable day care spaces.
As federal cabinet ministers debate the issue, provincial officials are growing more impatient. Said John Sweeney, Ontario’s minister of community and social services: “There are initiatives we cannot move on without federal support. We cannot be put off any longer.” Meanwhile, working parents are experiencing even more frustration as they desperately search for good, affordable and accessible day care across the land.
-MARY McIVER with MARC CLARK in Ottawa and correspondents’ reports
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