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Purple bibs to identify the children of cpe du carrefour, a daycare as they get ready to go outdoors in Montreal, October 17, 2013. ((Christinne Muschi for The Globe and Mail))
Purple bibs to identify the children of cpe du carrefour, a daycare as they get ready to go outdoors in Montreal, October 17, 2013. ((Christinne Muschi for The Globe and Mail))

Better daycare for $7/day: One province's solution for Canada Add to ...

This is the first in a Globe six-part series about building a better daycare system in Canada. We’ll examine 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

A group of four-year-olds stand at a busy intersection in Montreal’s east end, holding hands and counting down in unison as they wait for the light to change. They aren’t just killing time: The purple bibs they wear mean that they are from the nearby Carrefour centre de la petite enfance, a publicly subsidized daycare centre staffed by educators trained to integrate informal math and language lessons like this one into everything their tiny charges do.

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The kids come from a range of backgrounds. Some spots have been reserved for low-income families, others are used by professional parents who live in high-end condos popping up in the area or more affluent neighbourhoods nearby.

All of them pay the same rate for full-time care: $7 a day.

That’s the envy of parents just about everywhere else in Canada, who shell out as much as $2,000 a month (in some cases more than their mortgage payments) for care that amounts to babysitting in somebody’s basement.

But Quebec’s program is about more than just affordable daily care. It is a wildly ambitious experiment in society-building – a controversial $2.2-billion bet that better daycare can not only transform child development but also vastly improve the prospects of women and the poor, and build a better labour force.

Such a bold approach has been watched closely across the country and around the world. And more than 15 years after it was launched by Premier Pauline Marois, then a cabinet minister, the results of Quebec’s big gamble are increasingly evident – a big payoff both in social and economic terms.

Yes, the “Sweden of North America” still has growing pains. Cheap childcare, so hotly debated when it was first proposed, has proved so popular – among all income brackets – that quality has too often come second to demand. Truly universal access remains a stumbling block – especially for many of the province’s poorest kids.

But the state of childcare in the province is still a giant step up from the unlicensed and unmonitored care that so many Canadian parents are stuck with. Childcare in Quebec has also proved to be a formidable social lever – decreasing poverty, increasing mobility for mothers and producing more babies among all income brackets.

All of which offers an important lesson for other provinces. As our population ages, Canada will need both more babies and more working adults than ever before – just as young professionals and new immigrants face an unprecedented squeeze on their time and their pocketbooks.

The only solution? A new way to mind the kids.

She is better known today for her hard line on sovereignty and controversial Charter of Values, but Ms. Marois has a unique perspective on families. Thirty years ago this month, she became the first cabinet minister in Canada’s history to give birth.

“I had four babies in six years,” she recalls during a Globe and Mail interview. “Then I said, ‘My dream is that all families in Quebec have access to childcare services and parental leave.’"

That dream, which was rolled out in the fall of 1997 after years in the making, followed the lead of many European countries – particularly Sweden – and made early childhood education part of a sweeping package of family-friendly reforms.

The province expanded leave benefits (adding five weeks exclusively for fathers) to encourage parents to stay home in the first year, when even the best infant care can’t compete with mom and dad. Full-day kindergarten was created for five-year-olds, with schools required to provide after-school care as well – a move more than a decade ahead of current initiatives by provinces such as Ontario.

And for preschoolers – for whom good care is both hard to find and extremely important to foster social and cognitive skills – a daycare space was promised for every child who needed one. Perhaps the most daring decision of all: no matter their income or the age of their child, the spots would cost every citizen the same amount.

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