The tragic death of a four-month old infant in an unlicensed daycare in northwest Toronto brings attention to a national emergency of limited access to safe, affordable childcare. It is time that we reconcile these endemic deficiencies before another tragedy occurs.
Access to adequate childcare depends on province of residence. In Ontario, for example, the move toward full-day Kindergarten (FDK) in 2009 may have eased the demand among parents with children four or five years of age, but reduced care options for children from age 0 to three. Fees for older children help subsidize the higher care costs for infants and toddlers. Without these funds, daycares cannot support overhead expenses, and are forced to either close, or significantly increase childcare fees. Costs for these younger children now range between $45 and $85 per child per day.
The reduced supply and amplified cost of care present new challenges to working parents, especially among those with low incomes – many of whose children remain on a long waiting list for subsidized daycare spaces.
A similar situation is presented in the Prairie provinces, albeit they do not face the same population demands as Ontario. In some ways Saskatchewan and Manitoba are unique; the majority of their regulated centre-based spaces are not-for-profit. In Alberta only 50 per cent are not-for-profit.
The demand, however, still outweighs the number of daycare spaces across these provinces. Parents face limited options for safe, affordable childcare, especially in Alberta where the provincial government provides the least amount of financial support compared to other parts of Canada.
Quebec, alternatively, spends the highest amount of money on childcare: more than $1,000 per child. The province is able to offer $7-a-day daycare, which provides low-income parents with an affordable option.
In provinces where daycare is limited or unaffordable, low-income parents are left with no choice but to subject their child to unlicensed and potentially high-risk-care facilities – a situation that may have led to the recent infant deaths in Ontario.
When incidents such as these occur, people are quick to cast full blame on the care provider, which neglects the broader societal problem of limited childcare access. The proposed solutions from government politicians have contributed to this misguided vision, and in some cases, exacerbated the problem.
For example, The Child Care Modernization Act introduced in Ontario in December following the death of Eva Ravikovich – a two-month old infant that died in an unlicensed daycare in Vaughn – authorized the province to immediately close any daycare deemed 'high risk'. The Act also levied large fines against providers operating unsafe care facilities, and imposed a formal licence requirement for all providing daycares. These regulations have supposedly led to safer, high quality daycares.
At the same time, the Act substantially decreased the numbers of operating licenced and unlicensed facilities. A reduction in daycare providers left some parents scrambling to find childcare accommodations. The Childcare Modernization Act wrongly focused on conditions of care when it should have looked at the fundamental cause of social inequalities in access to childcare.
In response to recent events, Ontario Education Minister Liz Sandals proposes an alternative solution: increasing the maximum children allowance per trained care provider in all licenced daycares. Many object to Ms. Sandals' proposal, including Ontario's previous early learning advisor, Charles Pascal.
Mr. Pascal advocates that increasing the ratio of children to trained staff reduces the quality of care. While that is likely the case, I urge Mr. Pascal and other opponents to Ms. Sandals' proposal to weigh this risk against the high risk presented in the unlicensed care facilities that low-income parents will be forced to use if unable to find or afford a spot in a licenced daycare.
Regardless of whether Ms. Sandals' proposal is passed, a minimal increase of spots across licenced daycares is a small solution to a much larger problem. A more effective and long-term solution requires the intervention from all levels of government, employers and workplaces, and the broader residential community.
Governments' financial investments in the social reproduction of its citizens should equal the amount currently invested in the country's economic production. Federal, provincial, and municipal governments must immediately prioritize childcare, and provide funding for additional licenced care facilities. Parents are struggling to find childcare solutions for tomorrow, never mind next year.
We must also call on work places to help accommodate working parents' childcare demands until daycare facilities become widely accessible and affordable. Employers need to offer their workers flexibility to accommodate childcare demands.
A final contributing solution comes from our surrounding communities, neighbours, and networks. Strong, cohesive bonds among residents can offer the social support necessary to help parents struggling with childcare issues, and work-family conflicts more generally. Until we can reconcile childcare deficiencies, we must remember that it takes a community to not only raise a child, but to avoid the loss of one.
Marisa Young is an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology at McMaster University