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The federal government is diving into the deep end of child care, promising billions in new spending for provinces to create spaces and drive down fees.DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

The federal government has made child care the central plank of its social policy, pledging to spend $30-billion over five years to create a national system that’s affordable and accessible.

Ottawa will have to work with provincial, territorial and Indigenous partners to build the Canada-wide system.

The budget tabled Monday said the Liberal government’s spending would reach $8.3-billion every year after the initial five years. The government estimates this funding will allow for a 50-per-cent reduction in the average fees families pay for regulated early learning and child care in all provinces, apart from Quebec, to be delivered by the end of 2022. The goal is to enable parents to access early learning and child care for about $10 a day in five years.

The government pointed to Quebec’s system as a model for the rest of Canada, with that province offering subsidized spaces for $8.35.

Federal budget 2021 highlights: Child care, housing, jobs recovery - everything you need to know

Allowing both mothers and fathers to work increases the country’s work force and boosts its growth, says the budget document, which adds that the measures will create jobs for female child-care workers and raise a better-educated next generation.

In her speech to members of Parliament, Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland said the COVID-19 pandemic has “brutally exposed” something women have known for a long time: “Without child care, parents – usually mothers – can’t work.”

“The closing of our schools and daycares drove women’s participation in the labour force down to its lowest level in more than two decades. Early learning and child care has long been a feminist issue; COVID has shown us that it is an urgent economic issue, too,” she said.

The Liberals have been promising a national child-care program since 1993, and Ms. Freeland said that the move is long overdue.

The budget said that beginning in 2021-22, Ottawa would spend up to $27.2-billion over five years, bringing the federal government to a 50/50 share of child-care costs with the provinces and territories, as part of initial five-year agreements.

The federal funding would make more child-care spaces available across the country, and it would also improve and expand before- and after-school programs.

It was a welcome announcement for advocacy groups and experts. David Morley, president and CEO of UNICEF Canada, said affordable access to child care gives children “the best possible start in life,” calling the budget measure “a historic and important step forward in an equitable COVID-19 recovery for children and families.”

David Macdonald, senior economist with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, said this budget could be “transformative” for the child-care sector.

“It includes clear targets for fee reduction, although less clear ones for more spaces and better worker pay. If these measures survive the next election and the provinces buy in, this proposal will make a huge difference for families currently struggling to afford high-quality care,” Mr. Macdonald said in a statement.

Over the next five years, Ottawa said it would work with the provinces and territories to ensure that early-childhood educators are provided with training opportunities. According to the government, more than 95 per cent of child-care workers are women, many earning low wages, with a median income of $19.20 an hour.

The government is proposing to proceed with an agreement with Quebec that would improve its child-care system.

The budget pledges $29.2-million over two years, beginning in 2021-22, to enable child-care centres to improve physical accessibility. Ottawa estimates this funding could benefit more than 400 child-care centres.

The budget proposes $2.5-billion over the next five years to support the Indigenous Early Learning and Child Care Framework. The funding, beginning in 2021-22, would assist more Indigenous families in accessing child care and support before- and after-school care.

Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole questioned whether the government consulted the provinces about its plan – given that child care is a provincial responsibility.

“I prefer letting parents be in the driver’s seat and giving options to all Canadian families,” he said, adding that his party will propose amendments to the child-care program. He also noted that the Liberals have promised such a plan multiple times.

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says “pretty words, with no intention of acting on them.” He said the Liberals have promised child care for 28 years, and have long promised other measures, too. “If they had any intention of doing it, it would already be done.”

The government said it will table early learning and child-care legislation in the fall, after consultations.

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