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British Columbia Premier John Horgan leaves a coffee shop in Vancouver on Feb. 8, 2018.

DARRYL DYCK/THE CANADIAN PRESS

The BC NDP picked up just enough seats in the provincial election last May to form a minority government after it promised voters to make life more affordable for British Columbians. In the Throne Speech on Tuesday, the New Democrats will finally provide details of how they will live up to a key part of that commitment: A universal daycare program for just $10 a day.

The plan will offer relief for some families in the first year – the NDP will emphasize that this is just the start of a 10-year plan – but the province is still negotiating for federal dollars that will determine how big that first step will be.

"We are negotiating an early learning childcare agreement – we would love to work with three levels of government. This is something that is crucial to all families and we have to work together," Katrina Chen, B.C.'s Minister of State for Child Care, said in a recent interview.

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The Throne Speech will include the broad brushstrokes for how the government will roll out its daycare program, but the details, including a three-year fiscal plan, will be delivered in the provincial budget on Feb. 20. That doesn't leave much time for Ottawa to come to the table with funding, but Ms. Chen said she is hopeful.

"We are making significant investments provincially. Of course if the federal government is on board, we will be able to provide more."

Advocates for a universal childcare program say the province's investment will need to be $250-million this year to launch meaningful reforms. The money would help create more spaces, but most of it would be delivered to licensed daycares to lower fees for parents and to raise wages for care providers.

"Many childcare workers are paid less than parking-lot attendants," noted Paul Kershaw, a professor with the University of B.C.'s School of Population and Public Health.

The roots of the BC NDP's $10-a-day daycare promise can be traced back to the Generation Squeeze lab that was founded by Dr. Kershaw to research issues of affordability for young Canadians.

Dr. Kershaw says the NDP should aim to implement its program over two election cycles – eight years – and that by the time it is fully implemented – at an annual cost of $1.5-billion – the salary for early childhood educators would be on parity with elementary school teachers.

But for the budget that Finance Minister Carole James will introduce next week, he wants to see a three-year plan that would eliminate fees for low-income families (those earning less than $40,000 a year), while infant- and toddler-care costs would decline by $500 a month across the board. Wages for care providers would rise by at least one dollar an hour. And there would be 22,500 new spaces by the end of the third year.

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Dr. Kershaw said the objective is not really to set a specific price tag for daycare, but to ensure high-quality and affordable care. "Once it is fully phased in, childcare will no longer be a rent- or mortgage-sized payment," he said. The result will be better education and health outcomes for kids, and greater labour-force participation for parents.

While families are struggling with stagnating wages and spiralling housing costs, he said this is the one lever that the provincial government can apply that will make life more affordable.

Sonia Furstenau, the Green Party MLA responsible for childcare issues, said the $10-a-day promise is a tidy slogan, but the needs are more complex.

"This has the transformative potential, if we move down this road in a thoughtful and informed way on early childhood learning, to address things like growing inequality in our society; it can move us toward reconciliation." Rather than getting hung up on a single price tag, she wants to see the government help families who need it the most, and to ensure that the program includes flexibility for Indigenous communities to apply their own frameworks.

The Greens are calling for a substantial investment in early-childhood education, with a goal of ensuring that it would eventually be available to every three- and four-year-old.

The Greens are supporting the minority NDP government and have been included in talks to help shape the daycare program. Although Ms. Furstenau won't know what is in the budget until it is presented, she said she is encouraged by the feedback that the government is moving in the right direction.

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