The COVID-19 pandemic has altered the lifestyles of Canadians and highlighted the inherent issues of social policies, especially those within the childcare system. As a result, there has been increased pressure placed upon federal and provincial governments to address the need for universal childcare in Canada. By underscoring the necessity of childcare and exacerbating the problem of work-family balance for working parents, the pandemic has revealed the need for an immediate childcare overhaul that ensures equal access to affordable quality childcare and enables active economic participation by women.
To solve these childcare problems, Canada’s Liberal government is working with the provinces and territories to implement a national standard of $10 a day childcare for families. This policy is a step in the right direction for the future of Canadian childcare; however, the federal government must implement a full overhaul of the childcare system and not simply reform an already fragmented system. This overhaul is necessary to ensure that everyone who needs childcare, and especially those most vulnerable or marginalized, have affordable access.
Demands for universal childcare date back to the 1970 Royal Commission on the Status of Women in Canada report, which emphasized the importance of well-designed childcare in promoting equality for women. Despite this, attempts to create a national childcare system have so far been unsuccessful. In 2006, Canada spent 0.25% of GDP on early learning and childcare, ranking last among 14 other OECD nations. Today, Canada continues to lag behind other OECD countries in public spending on childhood education and care. In 2017, Canada spent 1.66% of GDP on “family benefits public spending,” which includes public spending on services for families with children. In contrast, France, the United Kingdom, and Sweden respectively spent 2.88%, 3.23%, and 3.39% of GDP on “family benefits public spending” in 2017.
Despite the 250,000 childcare spaces promised under the new Liberal policy, this number is still insufficient compared to actual needs.
Canada has mostly maintained an uneven and regionally diverse system of care. This approach to childcare has been referred to as a “patchwork,” as Canada’s federalist structure requires a political buy-in from all provinces and territories in order to achieve a universal system of childcare. Currently, as outlined in the Constitution Act of 1867, the responsibility for early learning and childhood education is delegated to each province and territory under the Canadian federation. Overarching support from the federal government to provinces and territories for childcare provision varies depending on the political party in power and usually comes in the form of agreements, transfers, and other funding. This allows for much diversity in childcare provision, including the province of Québec which, since 1997, has had publicly funded childcare. Québec’s publicly funded childcare system is an exception to what exists in the other Canadian provinces and territories, in which childcare is treated as a commodity rather than a public good. This marketization and the increased privatization of childcare has resulted in issues of unaffordability and inaccessibility. In sum, Canada’s federalist structure has slowed progress in achieving affordable and accessible childcare across Canada.
To achieve the Liberal government’s new childcare goal, the federal government will invest $30 billion over the next five years, and a minimum of $9.2 billion per year thereafter. This money will go to the provinces and territories to implement the $10 per child per day childcare program, including the introduction of 250,000 new childcare spaces, as stated by the Liberal government in their reelection platform earlier this year. So far, British Columbia, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Labrador, Prince Edward Island, Québec, New Brunswick, the Northwest Territories, and Yukon have signed the agreement with the federal government to implement this policy. The motivation behind this policy largely stems from increased recognition of the importance of utilizing an intersectional lens to craft effective policy responses to the disproportionate outcomes of the COVID-19 pandemic on women—and particularly women with children. While this policy sounds appealing and has promising aspects, it is vital that it be effective in improving issues surrounding affordability and accessibility, especially for those most vulnerable or marginalized.
Despite the 250,000 childcare spaces promised under the new Liberal policy, this number is still insufficient compared to actual needs. Ontario’s Child Care and Early Years System indicates that, in Toronto alone, there must be 70,000 new spaces to serve just half of the children aged 0-4 years old in the city. In 2016, regulated spaces in Canada only accounted for 27.2% of the 0-12 year-old population, and 28.7% of 0-5 year-olds. This inaccessibility is especially concerning considering the increased need for childcare spaces that correspond to changing family dynamics over the last three decades. These family dynamics feature more dual-earner couples and single-parent families, as well as more women participating in paid labour. The high demand for childcare in Canada is reflected in long wait list times. In Toronto, 95% of childcare centers have waitlists. While the City of Toronto does not track the number of those waiting for a child care space, 17,600 people were awaiting a child care fee subsidy in 2016, many of those waiting over a year on the waitlist.
Shortages are a problem even in Québec, the province often held up as a leading example of universal childcare for the rest of Canada. Following the introduction of publicly funded childcare in 1997, Québec’s transition to subsidized childcare at their Centres de la Petite Enfance (CPEs) quickly became popular. With many eager to make use of the care provided by CPEs, including mothers who decided to return to or enter the economic sphere, demand far exceeded supply. This led to an expansion of for-profit childcare in Québec to accommodate the need for more spaces. This means that Québec has not maintained a true publicly-funded system since 1997, but rather has a mixed market or multi-tiered system that includes many different forms of childcare options. This overwhelming demand for spaces continues, with the province recording over 50,000 children on waiting lists in 2021. In 2019, the total number of regulated childcare spaces for Québec children aged 0-12 years, including family and centre care, was 663,601. This means that part or full day regulated space was available for only 57.4% of children 0-12 years old.
Accessibility issues disproportionately affect those most vulnerable or already marginalized. Access to childcare is stratified by numerous factors, including location, age and developmental levels of children, household incomes, and racial and ethnic backgrounds. Equal access to childcare is an issue most pronounced for specific groups in Canada, including certain age groups; cetain language and cultural groups; some categories of parents such as those who work non-standard hours; Indigenous Canadians; newcomers to Canada; and families living in provinces, regions, or neighbourhoods often referred to as childcare deserts.
As the 1970 Royal Commission on the Status of Women in Canada report noted decades ago, childcare has implications for gender equality and women’s participation in the labour force. These facts have become more pronounced as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. The closure of childcare centres had implications for all parents, but the burden of care fell heaviest on mothers. An average Canadian woman with children at home spent almost 50 more hours per week on childcare during the pandemic than men, totaling up to 95 hours per week. Women’s hours spent on domestic tasks also increased drastically, including time spent homeschooling children during school closures. As a result, more women than men left their jobs in order to deal with this new pandemic-related lifestyle. Despite significant progress made toward gender equality over several decades, the pandemic showed that cultural norms of gendered carework were not just entrenched, but also reinforced.
The COVID-19 pandemic presents a moment in history for the Canadian government to implement a new childcare policy. There is a window of opportunity for overhaul, as the implicit issues with the Canadian childcare system have been especially exacerbated and have received increased public and media attention. However, it is critical to consider the realities and concerns about how this policy will actually play out. Will enough spaces be created for all children? Will those who currently struggle to access affordable childcare be presented with more equal opportunities? The new childcare policy must be an overhaul of the childcare system to ensure that everyone who needs childcare, especially those most marginalized or vulnerable, have affordable access.