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David Kaiser and Loree Tamanaha watch as their two-year-old daughter Olive plays in her Montreal home, Oct. 16, 2013. The family had difficulty finding daycare in their neighbourhood and have had to hire nannies for child care.Christinne Muschi/The Globe and Mail

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.

Whether parents can find care, and what it costs them, depends on where they live. In Ontario, for instance, residents pay on average $925 a month for full-time licenced spots for a toddler – a rate that rises significantly in a big city. In Toronto, families who qualify for subsidized care find themselves on a waiting list with 20,000 others. Low-income parents in Vancouver receive a subsidized payment directly – but the maximum amount is hundreds of dollars short of the average monthly fee, which for toddlers is $1,200.

Even better-off families are going into debt to pay the daycare bills. To avoid not having care when it was time to return to work, Ms. Cousineau spent $7,420 just to save spots that opened while she was on maternity leave – a common and costly last-ditch option for young families already crunched financially in ways their parents never were. (Her family's child-care costs amount to 70 per cent of her net monthly salary.)

Today, couples under 45 have an average household income that is roughly the same as in 1976 – despite the fact that they are more likely to be working longer hours and have two incomes and more education. According to research by Lynell Anderson, an accountant, and UBC researcher Paul Kershaw, it takes the average young family in Canada 10 years longer to save for a down payment on a house – 15 years, if they live in B.C., where housing costs have gone up 149 per cent in the last four decades.

Tara Mahoney, 30, the creator of Gen Why Media, a multimedia company in Vancouver that specializes in civic engagement, would like to start a family soon. But she's deterred by friends trying to manage child care that costs more than their rent. "When I think about that equation, it doesn't add up," she says. "It's not attainable."

Her parents' generation socked extra pennies away for their kids' university bills; Ms. MacIntyre figures she'll have to save for daycare.

Health-care costs and Old Age Security have created an uneven balance between the generations, says Prof. Kershaw, who leads Generation Squeeze, a campaign to highlight the spending shortfall in family policy. Per-capita spending on Canadians over 65 is now $45,000 versus about $12,000 for those under 45, he says.

"No one wants there to be intergenerational tension in society – and in families, certainly, no one wants to pit grandparents against grandchildren, but our budgets are at risk of doing that these days," he says.

"In Canada, we haven't moved forward because of cultural inertia." Says Ms. Anderson: "We see parenting and young children as a private responsibility, and it's been very hard for us to get past that. We really haven't translated out thinking about collective responsibility into policy. It seems like it should be a slam dunk."

As for government complaints that "the cupboard is bare," Prof. Kershaw says, "the cupboard space is actually growing and growing. It's just not being spent on young people."

A growing number of business leaders, child-development experts and economists say that's short-sighted budgeting.

"With all the benefits of early education," Craig Alexander, the chief economist for Toronto-Dominion Bank, declared in a recent policy paper, "it begs the question why we don't have more programs in place, and why it is not a high priority for policymakers."

A few years ago, Warren Beach, now chief financial officer at Aritzia, heard Prof. Kershaw present the statistic that in British Columbia alone, businesses lose $600-million because of work-life conflict among families with young children. Mr. Beach didn't buy it, so he checked the math himself – and came away convinced. He had also seen for himself the economic and social toll of poor daycare: his own family's scramble on waiting lists, the coveted worker who didn't return from maternity leave because of child-care issues. "There's a cost to business, to us training and mentoring employees," he says, "and then ultimately losing them."

Universal child care is a three-way economic stimulus program – it helps parents work (and reduces poverty), directly creates jobs for early childhood educators, and, if the early learning is good enough, gives a boost to the next generation of skilled labour.

"The question is if you invest $1 in this space, do you get $1 back?" asks Mr. Alexander. "The answer is yes."

But until the returns start rolling back because working mothers are paying more income tax, and fewer families are on welfare – which has happened in Quebec since it launched its program in 1997 – the upfront investment has made politicians skittish. Quebec now spends $2.2-billion annually on child care; a national program, similar to Quebec's, would cost Canadians an additional $11-billion a year, according to an analysis at UBC's Human Early Learning Partnership, conducted by Ms. Anderson and Prof. Kershaw. That analysis assumed child care for about $10-a-day (and free to families earning less than $40,000).

Those are big numbers, to be sure, but child care is one of those go-big-or-stay-home challenges. And dripping cash into a poorly managed, market-based system hasn't worked – it's led to high fees over all, an increase in expensive for-profit care and too much unlicensed home daycare of questionable quality. That's because early learning – when done properly and at a cost parents can afford – is not profitable.

So far, provinces have tried to solve the child-care issue by expanding school into younger ages.

But that also adds a new complication: Older children are the best deal for daycares because child-staff ratios can be lower – so four-year-olds subsidize the more expensive two-year-olds. Without them, either the government kicks in more money or parent fees go up.

To run its full-day kindergarten, Ontario had to hire early childhood educators – that means daycares lost some of their best staff, in an industry already struggling with high turnover and shortages.

Quebec's case has demonstrated, however, that child care takes long years to get right. Even with enough $7-a-day spots for 50 per cent of children under the age of five (twice as many as the country as whole), there are still parents who can't get a space. David Kaiser and his wife Loree Tamanaha for instance, didn't land a spot at their neighbourhood's non-profit centre – even though they jumped on a list when Dr. Tamanaha was five months' pregnant – until they had gone through two other options: first a nanny, then a private centre, both at much higher costs. "[The non-profit centres] are the cheapest daycare, but it's perceived by everyone I've ever met as the quality option, the desirable option," Mr. Kaiser said. When a spot finally opened up, however, they felt it was too stressful for their daughter to move yet again.

For the most part, however, governments have balked at a large-scale program, publicly planned and managed, that sets low flat fees.

B.C. Premier Christy Clark, for instance, has said the province can't afford $10-a-day care. Part of the problem, she concedes, is that "it's hard to marshall wide-scale political support … because the parents who need child care are mostly parents with children under 6, and once people's children get into school, it's easy for people to forget how difficult those years are."

Says Mr. Alexander at TD Bank: "The problem from a political point of view is that the benefits [of child-care spending] compound over the life of a child, and not within an electoral term."

A main goal of the Generation Squeeze program is to get more young people thinking about the double standard of being expected to raise families while working to support an aging population without their fair share of public dollars.

"We get the message that motherhood is a sacred trust," says Ms. Cousineau, "and then we hear simultaneously from a lot of people that, 'You make the choice to have children, you bear the cost.'"

For many, that cost has become too high – for too little – despite those $100 monthly cheques from Ottawa.

Follow Erin Anderssen on Twitter

With a report from Kim Mackrael in Ottawa and Justine Hunter in Victoria

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