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Historically, child care was a welfare service for parents who couldn't manage otherwise – nuns created the first daycares in the mid-1800s to assist poor working mothers.


Only during the Second World War has the federal government ever played an active role, offering to split the costs of child care with provinces so women could contribute to the war effort. Daycares opened in Ontario and Quebec, but most closed once the fighting had ended.


Most mothers stayed home in the 1950s, but society changed radically in the following decade, and child care outside the home became an issue again. In 1970, the Royal Commission on the Status of Women called for a public program as a positive step toward greater gender equality.


A national report commemorating the Year of the Child in 1979 detailed the problems caused by lack of care, and in 1986, after a federal task force proposed universal public care, a parliamentary committee began to look at options – only to be derailed by an election.


Initially, the goal was to help women who wanted to work. But in the 1990s, led by the late Fraser Mustard, a Canadian physician whose research also made a case for full-day kindergarten, the importance of the early years to learning became increasingly clear.


Then economists joined the fray. The University of Chicago's James Heckman, a Nobel laureate in 2000, contended that child care was expensive but paid for itself down the road. Three years later, David Dodge, then governor of the Bank of Canada, endorsed the view that a strong early education raised healthier, happier and smarter adults, better able to compete in a knowledge economy.


Still, progress was negligible, hampered by friction between Ottawa and the provinces. Federations like Canada with shared decision-making tend to have weaker child-care systems, observes Martha Friendly, executive director of the Child Care Resource and Research Unit in Toronto. Ottawa chose instead to help families through tax benefits, such as refunds for child-care expenses, and targeted funding for low-income families, folding its spending on young children – parent education and post-natal programs, as well as child care – into social transfers to the provinces.

A significant change in policy came in 2001 with the expansion of parental-leave benefits, which allowed working mothers – or fathers – to stay home up to a year and collect benefits (although fathers were entitled to less time).


Finally, in 2005, the federal Liberals under Paul Martin came close, signing agreements with the provinces to create "a truly national system of early learning and care," and committing $5-billion over four years.

"This wasn't a matter of pulling teeth," recalls Ken Dryden, who, as Mr. Martin's minister of social development, stickhandled the agreements. Provincial leaders recognized the economic benefits, although a vocal segment of the public still opposed federally funded "babysitting." This sentiment included the federal Conservative Party and its embrace of so-called family values. One of the Stephen Harper government's first decisions after ousting the Liberals in January, 2006, was to cancel the national plan.


Instead, the Conservatives created the Universal Child Care Benefit, which pays families $100 a month for every child under 6 – a move popular with the party base, particularly in Alberta, where mothers of young children were less likely to work than those anywhere else in the country.

The "Cash for Kids" benefit goes to all children, not just those of working parents. It is expensive – last week a CRRU report estimated it will hit a seven-year total cost of $17.5-billion by next year – although the cheques barely cover a few days of care. If the money spent each year was invested directly in regulated child care instead, Ms. Friendly estimates that it could "modestly fund an additional 700,000 spaces annually."


Ottawa also tried another approach, offering incentives to employers to provide child care at work though the $250-million Community Child Care Investment Program. The goal was to create 25,000 places, except that companies were not keen to get into the business of early education. The program was terminated, with the money transferred directly to the provinces under the Child Care Spaces Initiative.


How much does Ottawa currently spend on early learning? The $100 monthly cheques cost $2.6-billion a year, and the federal government also refunds $810-million worth of child-care expenses to parents (the provinces pay back about another $400-million) and spends about $200-million on early childhood education in aboriginal communities.

This year, provinces received $12-billion in federal social transfers, of which $1.2-billion was loosely defined as "support for children." This includes $700-million earmarked for child care, which the provinces and territories are encouraged to use to expand care.

According to a recent analysis led by Ms. Friendly, governments jointly spend nearly $3.7-billion a year on regulated child care, which includes subsidies for low-income families and operating grants to daycare centres and home-based care. But the tally for Quebec, with its $7-a-day program, accounts for two-thirds of it.

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