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Minister of Finance Chrystia Freeland delivers the 2020 fiscal update in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Nov. 30, 2020.

Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

“Now is the moment,” Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland said last week, speaking about the creation of a national child-care plan. And she was right: The politics are now easier and the economics are more obvious.

This is a major change in Canada’s politics. Stephen Harper’s Conservatives campaigned against the first real effort to build a national child-care plan, and dismantled it when they took power in 2006. But you wouldn’t expect Erin O’Toole’s Tories to do that now. They might oppose the specifics, but they would be politically foolhardy to fight the idea.

The COVID-19 pandemic has made it clear that child-care problems are work disruptions. The massive support programs of 2020 have overturned ideas of whether we can afford billions. And two decades of experience with Quebec’s subsidized daycare program has shown that accessible child care is good for the economy.

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It’s not just labour and left-wingers supporting the idea now but also the Business Council of Canada. ScotiaBank’s chief economist, Jean-François Perrault, published a paper in November highlighting its economic benefits.

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The politics have changed. This is the moment.

The catch is Ms. Freeland cannot simply announce the details of a national child-care program in Monday’s budget and say it’s done.

Child care is within provincial jurisdiction. The moment depends on what the provinces do, too.

And Justin Trudeau’s Liberals have to make a decision on a critical question: how far will they intrude into provincial jurisdiction?

If she could, Ms. Freeland would announce a coast-to-coast-to-coast version of the Quebec daycare program, which offers subsidized spaces for $8.35 a day. The Liberals declared that as the model to copy in last September’s Throne Speech. A lot of child-care activists expect nothing less.

But again, there is that pesky detail: Canada is a federation. The delivery of child-care programs is within provincial jurisdiction.

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Ottawa can transfer money to the provinces for child care, but the feds don’t just want to be a chequebook. They want to tell people what they are buying: accessible child care.

So we can expect Ms. Freeland will announce new funding for child care, but that the provinces will have to meet certain conditions to receive it. The provinces will see loose conditions as a carrot, but will view strict conditions as a stick wielded so Ottawa can get its way.

This is not just a bun fight. The principles of federalism actually matter. And in practice, some kind of federal-provincial co-operation is going to be necessary to really establish accessible child care across the country.

That was a slow and arduous process when then-social development minister Ken Dryden worked out deals one province at a time in 2004 and 2005. It’s only going to succeed this time if Ms. Freeland keeps the financial conditions pretty loose but seizes the political moment to get things done.

Her budget might well announce that the government will spend billions to try to build a Quebec-style system, but what matters is whether the financial conditions are flexible enough for provinces to choose something significantly different. You would expect affordability and accessibility to be at the top of the list of conditions – but with the definitions to be negotiated. Getting it done is the important thing.

Scotiabank’s Mr. Perrault and other experts such as Carleton University professor Jennifer Robson have proposed other methods involving direct financial supports for low-income families and funding to encourage the expansion of spaces; Mr. Perrault proposed grants, while Prof. Robson thinks the feds should create a permanent child-care transfer to provinces. The point, Mr. Perrault said, is pragmatism.

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“It’s an extremely challenging problem in the federation for something where the economics aren’t that complicated,” he said.

The evidence that Quebec’s subsidized child-care program encouraged labour-force participation by women is now clear. The increase in the numbers of women entering the work force spurred GDP growth in Canada in the 1960s, 70s and 80s, but that trend trailed off in the 1990s. However, in Quebec, it picked up again in the early 2000s after the province’s subsidized daycare plan was phased in.

“If you make child care more accessible and that incents women to work, then that increases the growth potential of the economy,” Mr. Perrault said.

That makes it a no-brainer for Ms. Freeland’s budget, which is supposed to be about post-pandemic recovery. But the thing about this moment is that it’s not enough for Ottawa to seize it – it has to bring the provinces along.

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