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The evolution of Canada's child care debates


Canadians have long grappled with the meanings and purposes of child care.

As Canadians gather for ChildCare2020 -- the country's fourth national child care policy conference -- in Winnipeg on November 13, it’s worthwhile to reflect on how child care debates have unfolded over the past several decades, and particularly how the three previous national conferences -- in 1971, 1982, and 2004 -- acted as important landmarks in the sometimes-rocky landscape of Canadian child care history.

As is the case this year in Winnipeg, all three of these conferences were convened because advocates sensed an opportunity to change the national conversation about child care. In each of the previous conferences, advocates, parents, educators, and others sought to set an agenda for better child care moving forward, but they also engaged in passionate debates about what “better” meant. Taking stock of those competing visions for child care reminds us how far the movement has come over the past 40 years. 

When delegates gathered in Ottawa in June 1971 for the first Canadian Conference on Day Care, child care was a relatively new issue on the federal policy agenda. Canadians were still getting used to the idea that working motherhood was a “normal” phenomenon, and second-wave feminists had just begun their fight to have day care recognized as a necessary service to support women’s equality in the workplace and in the home.

Just a year before the conference, for example, the Royal Commission on the Status of Women released its ground-breaking report calling for (among other things) the creation of a national day care program. Given the rapidly changing contexts of working motherhood in Canada, conference chair Anne Barstow explained there was a need for the child care community to articulate a “clear idea of the philosophy behind day care." The Canadian Council on Social Development (CCSD) brought together 350 people to do just that.

At the 1971 conference, feminists pushed delegates to adopt a stance in support of a “public…system of free universal day care” as a matter of women’s rights. But in 1971 this was still considered a radical position, and such views consistently ran up against older, entrenched notions of day care as a last-resort welfare service, one that should be reserved only for “needy” mothers. Conference delegates all agreed that governments needed to do more to ensure that a wide range of day care services were available around the country. In the years to come, though, these tensions between universalist and targeted notions of day care would run throughout child care politics.

Although feminist-inspired advocates worked hard throughout the 1970s to set the agenda on child care, by the end of the decade governments of all levels had undertaken little more than piecemeal reforms. But the number of women in the labour force had increased by more than 65 percent, and 1979 data showed only 109,135 licensed child care spaces for the 1.5 million Canadian children who needed care.

These conditions provided the backdrop for the Second Canadian Conference on Day Care in 1982, which was also spearheaded by the CCSD amidst heightened attention to women’s issues in the early 1980s. The feeling that clearly permeated this “electrically charged” and “clamorous” conference was that immediate action was necessary. “I do believe,” as one provincial minister said, “that the time for arguing about whether day care is necessary is long past.” Instead, conference delegates focused on who should provide day care services and how they should be funded and administered.

While all delegates agreed that more and better child care was needed, a deep division emerged around the merits of non-profit or public versus “private”, or for-profit care. A powerful alliance of advocates and concerned members of the child care community, led by the Ontario-based group Action Day Care representing the legacy of feminist activism through the 1970s, wanted to see conference delegates take a collective stand in favour of publicly-funded, universal child care as the best way to ensure a system of high quality, equal access, and fair treatment for workers. Their efforts clashed with a sizable group of private child care providers, who insisted on the importance of market-based care as a matter of parent choice.

At the end of the conference, 75 percent of delegates supported a resolution calling for non-profit, publicly-funded care, a position that went on to inform the work of the newly created Canadian Day Care Advocacy Association (now the Child Care Advocacy Association of Canada). The lobbying of private day care interests, though, prompted discussions that continue to challenge the child care community.

More than 20 years passed between the second and third national conferences, a period marked by periods of optimism (the Katie Cooke Task Force’s 1986 recommendations for a national child care system, for example) but more often by disappointment. Child care was largely off the policy agenda through the 1990s, despite promises made at the federal level, and services continued to be a patchwork collection of varying quality and accessibility -- with the important exception of Quebec’s $5-a-day program, introduced in 1997.

But when 650 delegates gathered in November 2004 in Winnipeg for the third national child care conference, a sense of optimism and hope permeated the gathering. There was a sense that child care had finally come of age, and that the efforts of a mature and organized advocacy community were paying off. The federal and provincial governments had just negotiated the Multilateral Framework Agreement on Early Learning and Child Care, and, during the 2004 election campaign, then-Prime Minister Paul Martin promised to spend $5 billion on a child care agreement with the provinces to support a “truly national” child care plan.

Conference delegates put forward an amazing array of rationales in favour of major investment in child care, reflecting the diverse membership of the child care advocacy community that had developed over 40 years. Conference attendees argued that child care could support social equity, inclusion, the alleviation of poverty, labour rights, women’s equality, community development, the prevention of crime, child welfare and development goals, and a strong and healthy economy. At the town hall at the end of the 2004 conference, participants rose to express their determination that a national child care program would become a reality. One delegate declared that she did not want to attend another national conference only to say, “We lost again.”

Stephen Harper and the Conservatives had other plans for child care, and, upon his election in 2006, decided instead to create the $100-a-month Universal Child Care Benefit, trumpeting a shallow argument for giving parents “choice.” The lack of attention to child care during Harper’s tenure has left Canada with one of the poorest records on child care compared to other developed countries. The Canadian child care community, though, has once again sensed an opportunity to change the conversation about child care. No doubt discussions in Winnipeg will lead to renewed vision and action.

Of course, this short history cannot capture the diversity of views represented at the three conferences that set the stage for ChildCare2020: a more thorough analysis would reflect negotiations around the relationship between care and education, around the merits of federal versus provincial systems, and about the best path for inclusion of services for Indigenous children.

This brief overview, though, should serve as a reminder that today’s advocacy is the product of long-standing debates about the best vision for child care. Let it remind us that action on child care needs to take into account the diverse interests of women, children, and workers. Finally, let it remind us that confronting the range of often-competing perspectives on child care will ultimately lead to a stronger and more vibrant movement based on principles of high-quality, accessible, and inclusive care for all Canadian families.

Lisa Pasolli is a SSHRC Postdoctoral Fellow in the Frost Centre for Canadian Studies and Indigenous Studies at Trent University. She will be speaking at Childcare2020, the first national childcare policy conference in a decade, being hosted in Winnipeg between November 13-15, 2014.

Photo: Morgan. Used under a creative commons BY-2.0 license.