As other countries move toward universal, quality child care, Canada continues to drag its feet

SUE FERGUSON April 8 2002


As other countries move toward universal, quality child care, Canada continues to drag its feet

SUE FERGUSON April 8 2002




Tania's daycare odyssey began in January, 1999 when she was just eight months old. Her parents hired one of their fellow students at Victoria’s Camosun College to watch her while they were in class. Now, at 31/2, the avid colourer and puzzler has experienced a total of seven different arrangements, from casual babysitters to licensed in-home and centre-based care, both commercial and non-profit. Tania’s mother, Morena, attributes the disruptions to a variety of factors (because of parental concerns for children’s privacy, Macleans is using first names only in this story). Sometimes life simply got in the way, as when a provider decided to change careers or, in September, 2000, when Morena and her husband, George, moved to Burnaby, B.C., where Morena is attending Simon Fraser University. But too often the parents have pulled Tania from care because they were worried for her welfare —after dropping by to find caregivers in heated arguments with their spouses, or speaking in sharp, sarcastic tones to children or, in one case, denying Tania her bottle and diaper, without consulting the parents beforehand, in an effort to “speed” her development.

In the same province, 260 km inland, five-year-old Paige and her brother, Avi, 18 months, have never had to feel the confusion and fear such incidents can engender. After moving from Toronto to Kelowna, B.C. in 1998, their parents—both doctors —hired a nanny. They were so pleased with the consistently high quality of care that the prospect of losing their nanny, Evelyn, “was a big part of the reason why we decided not to move back to Toronto,” says mother Annette, after her husband was offered an attractive position in their hometown.

The stark contrast between Tanias experiences and those of Paige and Avi is not accidental. Clearly, household income— less than $20,000 a year in student loans compared to the six-figure salaries of two medical professionals—is a significant factor. As physician Annette readily acknowledges, “in terms of the real world, we’re in la-la land because we have financial flex-

ibility.” But child-care advocates and academics are quick to point out that the variation in daycare experiences is due to more than just income levels. After all, Tania— aided by a subsidy that covers $228 of the monthly $580 fee—is now happily ensconced in the Morningside Centre at Simon Fraser, one of British Columbia’s most reputable daycares. The broader issue, says Martha Friendly, coordinator of the Childcare Resource and Research Unit at

the University ofToronto, is Canada’s lack of commitment to a national child-care system. The research shows that “group experience in a high-quality child-care setting is advantageous for all kids, regardless of income,” says Friendly.

But of Canadas 2.8 million children under six, only about 10 per cent are in regulated care (which is more likely than casual settings to promote early childhood development). The current patchwork of care,

As other countries move toward universal, quality child care, Canada continues to drag its feet

Friendly asserts, is “incredibly dysfunctional.” And, as in dysfunctional families, it is the kids who pay the biggest penalty.

Friendly’s voice is one of many that have spoken out over the past 30 years for “universally accessible, quality child care.” The Royal Commission on the Status of Women first proposed it in 1970, and since then, three different federal governments (in 1984,1987 and 1993) have committed to some kind of national program,

but each has failed to deliver. As for the current administration, Human Resources Development Minister Jane Stewart defends its record. Since taking office for a second term in 1997, she points out, the Liberals have targeted low-income families with hefty increases in the child-tax-benefit supplement, dedicated funds to aboriginal children, extended maternity and parental leave benefits from 25 to 50 weeks, and devoted $2.2 billion to a five-year, federal-

provincial initiative on early childhood development. This latter program explicitly encourages the provinces to bolster their child-care facilities but, says Stewart, its not Ottawa’s job to direct the provinces and territories on how to spend the money. “We agreed upon priorities and came to the table with money. It is up to them to invest it.” To date, only seven of Canadas 13 jurisdictions have put any federal money toward child care.

While the federal and provincial governments “tiptoe into the daycare waters,” as Toronto Liberal MP and chair of the National Children’s Agenda Caucus John Godfrey puts it, the need for a systematic solution has become increasingly urgent. In 1976, three out of 10 mothers who had children under age 6 were in the paid work force; by 2000, the proportion had more than doubled. In some areas of the country, says Maryann Bird, executive director of the Child Care Advocacy Association of Canada, the figure is even higher, reaching 83 per cent in Prince Edward Island. “Ifwe have regulated care for roughly 10 per cent,” she says, “my question is, where do all those other children go?”

Zoé likes nothing better than to grab her African drums and bang out a rhythm as she cruises from room to room in her Gatineau, Que. house. “She absolutely loves music,” says her mom, Teresa. Luckily for both mother and daughter, the precocious 15-month-old can also exercise her musicianship weekdays at the Bébéjou daycare, where staff regularly provide the children with a variety of musical instruments. As well, Zoé and the four others in her age group spend their days scrambling over foam mats, fashioning crafts and going for walks around the block—all under the auspices of a caregiver with an early childhood education certificate who keeps Teresa closely informed about Zoés day. The centre even provides parents with a formal “progress report”—an interview supplemented by a five-page summary of a child’s development. Zoé, it appears, has mastered the pincer grasp, but is not so keen on finger-painting.

Teresa is an educational assistant with the Ottawa-Carleton Catholic School Board. Like all employed Quebec parents using the public system of familyand centre-based care introduced in that province in 1997, she pays $5 a day for child care

(daycare is gratis three days a week for families on social assistance). She and her husband, Michel, couldn’t manage financially, she says, had they stayed in Ontario. Having grown up an anglophone in Curran, Ont., east of Ottawa, Teresa was leery of anti-English sentiment in her neighbouring province. “I always swore that I would never move to Quebec,” she says. But in 1999, when she decided to have a child, the prospect of paying between $30 and $50 a day for child care led her to reconsider. Now, the wisdom of that decision is paying off for Teresa and Michel.

Child-care advocates across the country cite Quebec as a model for other jurisdictions. But within the province, the system has encountered some criticism. Having doubled the number of spaces since 1997, child-care agencies still cannot accommodate 63,000 children currently on waiting lists (many are from lower-income families who, says Quebec ombudsman Pauline Champoux-Lesage, should have been given top priority). While the government plans to spend $50 million this year to create

20.000 new spaces, it’s having trouble finding the necessary land. Meanwhile, private daycare owners, on whom the Parti Québécois government imposed a moratorium five years ago preventing them from expanding services, claim they could open up

23.000 spaces within a year at no charge to taxpayers.

In the background is a growing body of research indicating that quality daycare, especially in the preschool years, can be crucial for children. The period when many of the critical processes in brain development occurs is “over or waning by the time a child is six years old,” concludes the “Early Years Study” commissioned by the Ontario government in 1999. Children of stay-at-home moms or dads who provide safe, loving environments are free of risk. But for the growing number of families that require it, the report continues, good daycare can “vastly improve” children’s health, behaviour and learning capacities in later life. Along with healthy family and community environments, Friendly confirms, well-staffed child-care programs with strong commitments to safety, learning through play and professional development for caregivers can be “a determining factor” in a child’s ability to reach her potential. And this is true

for children from all income brackets. Citing the Ontario study, John Godfrey says, “It’s not simply about poverty. In absolute numbers, more kids from middleincome families would benefit from a national daycare system.” In other words, targeting resources for child care to poorer families—as is the practice in all provinces but Quebec—doesn’t solve the entire problem.

That message has hit home in certain quarters. “Starting Strong,” an Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development study published last year, states that although the record for infant care is mixed, quality child care for older preschoolers is a political priority in the 12 participating countries. Some, like Sweden, Belgium and Italy, have already established free child care

for threeto six-year-olds. Others are just beginning to map out a solution. Britain, for instance, with 1.6 million new childcare spaces, will have in place by 2004 a universally accessible program for all children over three. Even in the U.S., the study notes a growing commitment to and investment in early childhood education with “moves toward universal access to pre-kindergarten programs in many states.” Indeed, “the trend in all countries,” conclude its authors, “is toward full coverage of the threeto sixyear-old age group.”

Canada, however, is “moving backwards” thanks to developments in Ontario and British Columbia in particular, says Godfrey. Despite Premier Mike Harris’s pre-election promise in 1999 to act on the “Early Years Study,” Ontario has consistently cut funding for regulated care in recent years. Later that same year, Harris commented that working parents should be content to leave their children with family, friends or neighbours. And of the $114 million the province received in 2001 from the federal govern-

ment’s early childhood development initiative, not one cent went to regulated child-care facilities. (Instead, the province invested in health, nutrition and parenting programs, and research.)

Ever-tightening purse strings have had a noticeable effect on the quality of care in Ontario centres. Cheryl DeGras is the director of Toronto’s Pat Schulz Child Care Centre, a pioneer in early childhood education and development methods that are now widely adopted. Since 1995, she says, budget cuts have meant eliminating field trips, spending less on food and toys, freezing staff salaries—Canadian early childhood educators make an average of $22,000 a year—and cutting back on professional development. “It has definitely become harder to keep providing the quality of care that we’re known for,” she sighs. DeGras has also watched the centre’s physical environment deteriorate as janitorial services have been chiseled away. Last summer, for the first time since Pat Schulz opened in 1989, a parent stopped her in the middle of an introductory tour to say, “Don’t go any further—I couldn’t bring my child here. It’s too dirty.”

Now, another threat looms. An Ontario government policy paper drafted last October and leaked to the press the following month outlined a proposal that, says Friendly, “would bomb us back to the Stone Age.” It painted three scenarios for slashing $200 million from the province’s $470-million child-care budget. Citing a possible overall budget cut of $5 billion this year, Social Services Minister John Baird responded by saying that nothing could be ruled out: “There are no guarantees in this world.” (On the very same day, Ontario Finance Minister Jim Flaherty guaranteed the province’s corporations a $2.2-billion tax break by 2005.)

Parents in British Columbia are also facing the unknown. Last year, the outgoing NDP government introduced provisions that were to see parents pay $14 a day for child care within four years. (The first stage, $7 a day for beforeand after-school care, began that March.) After campaigning on the need for greater fiscal responsibility, Gordon Campbell’s Liberals took office, cut $ 16 million from the program and announced its termination in June. At this point, no one is saying what will take its place. With the announcement last month of a projected 31-per-cent budget cut to

the ministry of community, aboriginal and women’s services (responsible for child care), “there is a great deal of trepidation,” says Sheila Davidson, director of child care at Simon Fraser.

But “the biggest problem,” she adds, “is the lack of an overriding federal policy, like we have for health and education.” The federal-provincial initiative, says Davidson, “is too ad hoc.” Godfrey offers a similar criticism of his party’s initiative. Insofar as it endorses a comprehensive, community-based approach to early childhood development, he says, “it contains all the right elements.” The problem is that Ottawa cannot force those specific measures on the provinces. Giving up such control, Godfrey admits, is a political question: “We haven’t been shy, for example, with enforcing the Canada Health Act.” But with child care, he continues, “we have tied our own hands.” And while the Social Union Framework Agreement that sets the conditions for joint programs is currently under review, there are no indications, he says, that Ottawa will use the opportunity to untie them.

“Why did the cookie go to the doctor? Because he felt crummy!” Six-year-old Gabrielle loves to be goofy and make people laugh, says her mother, Ann, a Regina nursing student (their names have been changed in accordance with the Young Offenders Act). Three years ago, neither mother nor daughter had much to smile about. On a Friday evening in July, 1999, returning home from the private family daycare she and her younger sister had attended since the previous May, Gabrielle burrowed into her favourite spot, the coat closet, and called her grandmother on the cordless phone. “I was cooking supper,” recalls Ann, “and Gabrielle came up to me saying, ‘Grandma wants to talk to you.’ ” The voice at the other end of the line related a troubling message: Gabrielle had just confided that her caregiver’s 16-year-old son “licks her pee pee.” Hanging up the phone and holding back tears, Ann tried to reassure her daughter that she was no longer in harm’s way, and then phoned the police. Picked up later that night, the boy admitted to the abuse—which had taken place in the upstairs bathroom, beyond the eyes and ears of his mother—and later pleaded guilty in youth court.

Although Ann says she had always felt “uneasy” about in-home daycare, after in-

terviewing the caregiver and meeting her two teenage children, she was comfortable with the situation. “She was a very caring lady and good with the kids,” says Ann. “Gabrielle never cried about going.” But the experience has taken its toll. In kindergarten, Gabrielle had panic attacks at the prospect of going to the washroom—Ann informed the teacher of the abuse and special accommodations were made. Still, while she has made great strides over the past three years, says Ann, Gabrielle remains “a very insecure little girl.”

Abuse of any kind is rare, stresses Gillian Doherty, a University of Guelph adjunct professor who co-authored two studies of regulated familyand centre-based child care across Canada. “It is infrequent, but it happens,” she says. And while abuse can occur in any kind of daycare, it is less likely to happen, she reasons, in regulated settings. Such incidents are doubly unfortunate, she adds, because “they cast doubt on the thousands who are providing excellent care.” Inspectors regularly visit licensed family caregivers, a fact which helps ensure

the children’s safety, among other things. In fact, Doherty’s research confirms that, as with centre-based care, the vast majority of family-care settings—over 90 per cent— are physically safe. The remaining eight per cent were not abusive; they scored less due to insufficient attention to such things as good hygiene. Quality, she stresses, depends less on the form of daycare than on the training credentials of the caregiver and the size of the operating budget.

Whatever arrangement parents prefer, says child-care advocate Maryann Bird, “quality early care should be available for all who need it.” Other countries, says Friendly, have spent two decades putting a system of good accessible care in place. Canada “has a huge amount of terrain to make up.” And it won’t happen, she adds, without political leadership—a sentiment Gabrielle’s mom echoes poignandy: “Kids are kids,” she says, “and somebody has to look out for them.” E3

Should Ottawa establish a universally accessible