It's time for child care for all - Des services de garde éducatifs pour tous

Morna Ballantyne, Executive Director, Child Care Now, presents to the House of Commons Standing Committee on the Status of Women (FEWO)

Thank you very much Madam Chair and members of the Committee for inviting me to testify.

Child Care Now, also known as the Child Care Advocacy Association of Canada, was founded in 1982 to act on behalf of organizations and individuals who want high quality, affordable, and inclusive early learning and child care to be available for all families, and all children, regardless of where they live, and regardless of their circumstances.

We commend the Standing Committee on the Status of Women for undertaking an examination of the impact of COVID-19 on women, and for recognizing that such an examination would be incomplete without addressing the impact of COVID-19 on women’s access to child care.

I appeared before your committee three years ago when you were carrying out a study on the economic security of women. I and many other witnesses said then that women in Canada will not and cannot achieve economic security without full access to the paid labour force and to properly paid work, and this will not and cannot happen without a publicly funded and publicly managed child care system.

It has taken a public health crisis to prove our argument yet again. And now, finally, the essential and multiple roles of child care are being recognized, including by our Prime Minister. COVID-19 also exposes the fragility of the provision of child care in Canada. However, what governments will do about it—if anything—remains to be seen.

Statistics Canada’s labour force survey confirms the devastating impact of the pandemic on women’s employment, and particularly on the employment of mothers with children under the age of 12. While the May jobs report shows some job recovery overall, women accounted for only 29 per cent of that recovery.

Getting women back into the paid labour force is critical to women’s economic security. But increasing women’s labour force participation is also crucial to a sustainable economic recovery for everyone. The construction of an accessible, affordable, quality, inclusive system of child care is essential if Canada is to forge a resilient and just future, and also become the best possible place for children.

Child care in Canada was fragile before the pandemic hit because it is market-based, fragmented, and under-funded.

Parents in Canada are forced to purchase services from a child care market—some of which is regulated and some not, some of which is not-for-profit and some a source of profit.  It’s a market that offers a confusing array of scarce offerings, too many of which are of poor quality, and almost all of which are unaffordable for most families.  It contributes to, and exacerbates, economic and social inequity: Indigenous families, racialized families, and low-income households are disproportionately shutout.

The child care market is also particularly bad at meeting the needs of children with disabilities, children whose parents work non-standard or irregular hours, or children who live in rural and remote communities.

The market-approach works no better for child care providers. Almost all programs outside of Quebec rely primarily on parent fee revenue to stay in operation. The predominantly female workforce earns low wages and any raise in compensation translates into higher parent fees. Inadequate compensation has made the recruitment and retention of qualified early childhood educators a perpetual serious concern.

Leaving the provision of care to the market doesn’t work for child care any better than it would for health care, primary education or secondary education, or countless other areas where governments have intervened for the benefit of all Canadians, and because it makes economic sense to do so.

COVID-19 exposed all the problems with market-based child care and the absence of a fully publicly funded and publicly managed child care system.

When provinces and territories ordered child care programs to close during the emergency response phase of the pandemic (with limited services for essential workers), the sector was disrupted in a way that it was not for public education or other parts of the public sector.

The level of disruption depended on the approach taken by each provincial and territorial government. Where necessary support was provided, the child care programs are in a much better position to reopen and respond to the needs of children and parents.

A survey of licensed child care centres in Canada carried out in May found that more than one-third of the centres across Canada are uncertain about reopening.

It’s time now for major government intervention in early learning and child care. Child Care Now has proposed a federal strategy for doing just that.

Of course, the reconstruction of child care cannot be left to the federal government alone. It will require the federal government to work with the provinces, territories and Indigenous governments and communities. But the federal government must provide policy leadership, supported by its spending power, to respond to the immediate economic and social fallout of COVID-19—and to set the foundation for longer-term system-building.

Our strategy calls for a two-phased approach.

  • In the first phase, we want the federal government to spend $2.5 billion to support the safe and full recovery of regulated early learning and child care, and to respond to the immediate care needs of school-age children.
  • In the second phase, we propose that the federal government boost its child care spending to $2 billion in 2021-22, and that this base be increased each year thereafter by $2 billion (that is, $4 billion in 2022-23, $6 billion in 2023-24, etc.). These federal funds would be used to move Canada towards a fully publicly funded system, in partnership with the provinces/territories and Indigenous governments.
  • 20 per cent of this funding would be earmarked to support the Indigenous Early Learning and Child Care Framework.
  • The federal government would require the provinces and territories to use the federal funds to achieve measurable improvements in accessibility, affordability, quality and inclusiveness.
  • Additionally, the federal government would establish and fund a federal early learning and child care Secretariat to lead and co-ordinate the federal government’s work.
  • Finally, the government would propose legislation that enshrines Canada’s commitment to give all children the right to high quality early learning and child care.

Let me elaborate briefly on what we want to see in the first phase, which would start now and continue through to the end of the current fiscal year.

The federal government has promised $14 billion in new federal transfers to the provinces and territories, to be rolled out over the remaining months of 2020. These transfers are to help finance the safe restart of the economy.

Under the first phase of our plan, the federal government would allocate $2.5 billion of these promised transfers for spending on child care. Agreements with each province/territory would ensure that the federal funds are used for:

  1. A safe restart of child care programs
  2. The restoration and expansion of the number of licensed child care spaces that existed prior to the pandemic
  3. The establishment and operation of child care programs for school-age children up to age 12 through the summer months and into the fall and winter. Parents need access to quality programs before and after school hours, and/or during regular school hours if schooling is not available because of public health concerns.

Additionally, we want the federal funds to be used to improve the wages of those who work in early learning and child care to ensure the return and retention of qualified staff to the sector.

The federal Secretariat that has been mandated by the Prime Minister of Canada would be established during this first phase. Its mandate would be to advise on, monitor and evaluate the Phase 1 implementation, and plan for Phase 2, including the development of comprehensive workforce and expansion strategies.

Again, thank you for inviting me today. I invite you to read the full text of our strategy posted on our web site at timeforchildcare.ca. And, of course, I am happy to answer any questions you have.