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The fight for universal child care


My grandmother used to tell me that "nothing worth doing ever comes easy."

Well, a national, quality, affordable child care program is unquestionably worth doing. And come easy it won't.

Throughout this election, the very notion of a national program has been under attack. Some have advocated the atomizing view that child care is an individual family's responsibility; that there is no place for a public program to create quality spaces, only cheques to parents. 

Others have gone as far as to label the goal of universality as a costly subsidy to the rich.

The benefits of a well-designed and appropriately funded early childhood education and child care (ECEC) program are many, and well-known to experts. They include "women’s equality and employment, poverty reduction, family-work balance, social integration and equal opportunity, improved child development and well-being, and economic prosperity," according to a seminal discussion paper on child care released last year in Canada.

The importance of a national program for women has often been drowned out in the election debate. Women’s groups have been calling for a national child care program since the 1970s, when women were entering the Canadian labour force in record numbers. Justice Abella's 1984 report from the Royal Commission on Equality in Employment made the explicit link between a national child care program and women’s equality in the workforce.

Still, it wasn't until 1997 that Quebec introduced the first universal child care program in Canada. As we contemplate possibly electing a federal government that is committed to expanding child care in Canada, it’s worth taking a look at some of the lessons from this experience.

In its first decade, universal child care in Quebec resulted in an additional 70,000 mothers entering the labour force. The pay gap between men and women in the labour force shrank and the number of single parents using social assistance was cut in half. Quebec's statistical agency, ISQ, tells us that by 2009, two-thirds of low-income families with young children (total family income below $30,000) were taking advantage of subsidized spaces.

Still, there have been growing pains. Expansion of quality spaces takes time. Training and attracting quality child care workers requires planning and resources. More care must be taken to ensure that non-profit centres that focus on early childhood education can grow and flourish, and that families with fewer resources are not left behind when searching for spaces. 

And we should keep in mind that even though Quebec invests 0.7 per cent of GDP in universal child care, they are still well behind the international standard of 1 per cent for public investment in early learning and child care.

Child care activists know these things. Between November 13 and 15, 2014, a national gathering of child care researchers and workers gathered to talk about their visions for Child care in 2020. This gathering shared the best research on ECEC, and how to implement quality and affordable chil dcare programs across the country. Researchers, front-line workers, and politicians shared lessons learned and practical ideas about how we could build a national program that would be good for children, parents, and the economy. 

There is a clear economic case for building a national program. We must remember, however, it is not the only consideration. 

A national child care program must be seen for what it would be: a necessary public service. Rather than a commodity on the market accessible to some and not others, it would be a choice that all children and families including low income families, children with disabilities, and newcomers to Canada can make. Regardless of economic, cultural or linguistic circumstances, one's status in the workforce or where one lives in Canada, ECEC could be available and affordable to all those who need it.

It could be national project, much like Medicare, that we can all be proud of contributing to and benefitting from. With the acknowledgement that building a program like that will take sustained dedication and time.

We find ourselves at a fortunate moment in history. There exists both the hunger to build a new social program and the capacity to make it happen. No one thinks it will be easy. But it's worth the fight.

Angella MacEwen is an economist with the Canadian Labour Congress and is a Broadbent Policy Fellow.

Photo: BC Gov Photos. Used under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND-2.0 license.