In Sweden and other European countries, parents’ fees are set according to sliding scales based on income up to a maximum amount. But Quebec decided that higher-income families were already paying more in income tax so “we’re not going to make them pay twice,” says federal New Democratic Party Leader Thomas Mulcair, who was part of the opposition at the National Assembly when the daycare plan was being vigorously debated.
To deliver a one-fee system, Quebec now invests $2.2-billion a year in its childcare strategy, nearly two-thirds of the $3.6-billion spent by all provinces and territories combined. The number of childcare spaces that are regulated – subject to government standards for staff qualifications and safety and subsidized by as much as $13,000 a spot – has risen to more than 230,000 from 77,000 before the system was introduced. Nationally, there are only enough regulated spots for about 22 per cent of children under 5 – Quebec now has enough for half of them.
But half is clearly not enough. “All these families came out of the woodwork who wanted this kind of daycare, who had been using babysitters and grandmothers,” says political scientist Jane Jenson, who is the Canada research chair in citizenship and governance at the Université de Montréal and has studied Quebec’s childcare policy.
“Parents really wanted it. And so each government over time has had to make more of a commitment to increasing the number of places.”
It should have been no surprise that parents rushed to grab spots. Nothing in the rest of Canada comes close to Quebec’s flat rate – first proposed at $5, then raised to great outcry to $7 in 2004 after the Liberals came back to power. A family in Gatineau, Que., pays $140 a month for a space in regulated, centre-based care – just across the river in Ottawa, the same family would pay $900 a month or more.
But this surge in demand has led to some unforeseen compromises.
Cutting corners on what those low-fee spots would look like, for one. Ms. Marois had envisioned a system mainly made up of non-profit, publicly funded centres, which are known to offer better care. But such spots are the most expensive and time-consuming to produce – and the province didn’t have enough qualified educators to staff them.
To meet demand, Quebec has relied more than it had intended on home-based services, which are subject to less stringent regulations and employ caregivers who have less training. The Parti Québécois government also assumed that private daycare, where quality is often lower, would be phased out. But costs increased faster than expected, partly because newly unionized early childhood educators bargained for higher wages. So when the Liberals came back to power in 2003, they reined in costs by allowing for-profit care to expand its share of public spots; in exchange for a lower subsidy, for several years they were also permitted to meet lower standards.
Since the PQ’s return to power a year ago, Premier Marois has already started adding a promised 28,000 spots, which should bring regulated care to about 250,000 spots over the next few years. But that may still not be enough.
Meanwhile, there are waiting lists just like those that frustrate parents in the rest of the country.
Montreal first-time mother Sylvana Côté applied for a provincial spot as soon as she knew she was pregnant. But when she was ready, none was available: The daycare at her workplace, for instance, had 2,000 children on the waiting list and only five spaces opening in the short-term for infants.
When it comes to getting a $7-a-day spot for anyone younger than a toddler, she says, “I think the chances are about as good as winning the lottery.” Even private centres in her neighbourhood were full. “It’s not like you can say, ‘I am ready to pay the price,’ and there’s a space,” she says.
As a last resort, she tried an unlicensed home daycare, spending days there observing the kind of care her son received, only to decide that for $40 a day, it wasn’t good enough.