This is the second in a Globe six-part series about building a better daycare system in Canada that examines just who is watching the kids, across the country and around the world. Join the conversation on Twitter: follow @globelife and use the hashtag #globedaycare
In last week’s 7,100-word Throne Speech, child care got 64 of them.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s agenda for the next two years included a passing reference to “the daily pressures ordinary Canadian families face” and pointed to the taxable Universal Child Care Benefit his government brought in seven years ago – money for the “real experts” to decide how to care for their kids. That is, “mom and dad.”
But as any working parent searching for child care in this country already knows all too well, not even the most well-connected “expert” can find it for anywhere close to $100 a month.
This is the current reality in Canada: Women race to get their names on waiting lists when the stick turns blue on the pregnancy test, fingers crossed that they’ll win the future “daycare lottery” and get a spot that makes it possible to work, while being assured that their children are safe. Young families, especially in cities such as Vancouver, where the cost of care is highest in the country, feel they are being priced out of parenthood. Businesses lament that that they are losing A-list employees who don’t return after parental leave because the stress of finding good child care wasn’t worth it.
That’s a serious problem because Canada needs the skilled labour that affordable child care can create. Ottawa spends billions of dollars on Old Age Security, but high-quality, early childhood education – which experts agree would help mothers pursue careers, boost the birth rate, ease family stress, reduce poverty and improve success in school – isn’t even on the table.
“The kind of strain and stress and worry and cost, with all of its personal and social consequences, is enormous in this country, and largely invisible to policymakers,” says Susan Prentice, a childcare researcher at the University of Manitoba. “It’s tragic for children and families. And it spills over into our economy, and into our civic life together.”
Critics of a taxpayer-financed program may prefer to see mothers stay home with the kids, but it’s too late – she has already left for the office. More than two-thirds of Canadian women with children under the age of five are in the workforce. And Canada needs them to be there – the country expects to have a million job vacancies in the near future. Since women now account for 61 per cent of post-secondary graduates, filling those gaps in skilled labour will depend on finding a way to keep those women working.
“For myself and my friends, we’re professional, educated women who want to do the jobs we were trained for and think we are good at,” says Devyn Cousineau, a legal-aid lawyer and Vancouver mother of two. “If we don’t have access to care, we can’t contribute. For Canada to even take that risk is a huge mistake, a huge lost opportunity.”
In the country’s market-based hodge-podge of daycares, families are forced to pay university-tuition prices for little more than babysitting – a reality that has earned the country heaps of criticism internationally.
Even with Ottawa’s $100 monthly cheques and the tax refunds offered for daycare expenses, Canada’s upper-income families with two working parents pay, on average, the fifth-highest fees of 30 industrialized countries, according to a study by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development – the equivalent of 18 per cent of their net income. For low-income, single-parent families, it’s even worse – they pay, on average, 48 per cent of their net income, second only to Ireland. And even those rankings are misleading – Canada’s average fee gets a big boost from Quebec, whose groundbreaking, subsidized plan charges just $7 a day.