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The empty toddler room at Compass Early Learning & Care in Bowmanville, Ont., on June 24, 2020.Melissa Tait/The Globe and Mail

Energy and environment are the usual points of contention between Ottawa and Alberta. But the billions of dollars pledged to child care in this week’s federal budget is setting up to be the next federal-provincial battle.

The federal government has public desire to allow women a better chance to be full work-force participants on its side, while Jason Kenney has Alberta’s go-your-own way political culture on his. It would be unfortunate if Alberta families end up being the losers in this scuffle.

The key announcement in the federal Liberal budget was the $30-billion Canada-wide Early Learning and Child Care Plan, which the Liberals say promises to unburden families from high child-care costs. They want to bring fees for regulated child care down to an ambitious $10 a day within five years – with the objective of reaching a 50/50 cost share with the provinces and territories. The Liberals argue that as much as it’s about equality for children and women, it’s also about the economy – that affordable child care is likely to bump the country’s GDP and help people get back to work after the pandemic.

“Although Canada is very, very diverse in the provision of early learning and child care – and pretty much everything else – our goals are now national,” Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland said this week.

We don’t know all the details. That’s because the whole plan is subject to negotiations where Ottawa must strike individual deals with provinces. Economist Armine Yalnizyan – who sits on the federal task force on women in the economy – flagged in frank terms what Ottawa views as a main stumbling block. “The only hiccup is going to be intransigent provinces,” she said this week.

On that note, some premiers seemed cool to the pan-Canadian child-care plan. “If it’s a ‘take it or leave it,’ Ottawa-style cookie-cutter program, I don’t think that satisfies the demands or expectations of Albertans,” Mr. Kenney said. Ontario Minister of Education Stephen Lecce said the province needs long-term financial support that is flexible, “not a one-size-fits-all approach.”

It’s understandable that the provinces are a bit sour following the federal budget. Alberta, for instance, didn’t get what it was hoping for in terms of main asks on either carbon-capture projects or fiscal stabilization. And Ottawa rebuffed all the Premiers in their calls to commit longer-term to more federal money for health care. Instead, Ottawa has decided to create a mammoth new program in an area of provincial jurisdiction.

In Alberta, this massive, non-means-tested public expansion of child care in the style of Quebec’s system has never sat well with the United Conservative Party government. In fact, it officially phased out the former NDP government’s $25-a-day child-care program on April 1.

“I’ve never thought it’s fair to tax some parents – who, for example, make that sacrificial choice – in order to subsidize only one kind of care, which excludes many rural families, shift workers, many Indigenous people and many families who have informal arrangements,” the Premier said this week.

To be clear, there is no sign the federal program will exclude rural families, and there’s a separate funding stream for Indigenous communities. But Mr. Kenney is on solid footing when he argues some Albertans prefer more “informal arrangements” for child care.

An Angus Reid Institute poll from March found Albertans are the most likely to favour that government money allocated to child care go directly to families, so individuals can choose how to allocate the money. British Columbians and Atlantic Canadians tilt toward more funding to expanding available spots and quality of centre-based care. Those in Ontario and Quebec are evenly split on the question.

But child care as we know it has to change, and “choice” can’t be code for dismissing the gains that could come with a well-funded, education-based system with national standards. Access to more affordable child care is key for getting and keeping parents, especially women, in the work force.

And since women are more likely to earn less than men, daycare fees that swallow up after-tax paycheques are a massive impetus for someone saying: “Why work and give all my money away when I can stay home and be with my kids?” That can be a good choice. But it can also lead to women giving up hard-won career gains, and having to fight to get back into the work force, even once their children are school-aged.

Affordable child care allows a single mom the option of going back to school, or for a couple to have two incomes instead of one. And it has become abundantly clear in recent years that the province’s higher-than-average incomes, that might have allowed households to function on a single income, are not guaranteed into perpetuity.

There has to be a way to respect the differences that Mr. Kenney is talking about – for the people who want and can stay home, or have family members care for their children – while also giving families who don’t have the privilege of that option a better way.

There’s always a middle ground. Perhaps it’s a scenario whereby the federal government makes the Canada Child Benefit more accessible or more generous, but also moves to create new affordable child-care spots. There are both huge money and stakes on the line.

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