Child care in Canada: An overview

Illustrated characters. One says to the other, "My parental leave is almost up and I haven't found child care I can afford."A patchwork system

In Canada, there is no one, coherent child care system. In fact our child care system is so under-developed that we rank last on the child care index amongst the OECD countries.

Provinces and territories are primarily responsible for early childhood education and care services. This covers child care, nursery schools and kindergarten, school, after hours school care, etc. Some funding is provided by the federal government, but since the Conservative government was elected, funding for the development of a Pan-Canadian child care system has dwindled. The women’s movement and labour have been pushing for more federal funding to support the development of a universal, quality child care system for the last 30 years.

Each province and territory has its own child care regulations. They set staff- to-child ratios, maximum group size, training requirements, physical environments and other program conditions. Regulated child care can include: non-profit community run child care centers, public child care offered by municipalities; commercial child care centres, and home-based child care. Nursery schools and kindergarten’s also fall under provincial responsibility, and are regulated by public authorities.

Most child care is delivered by municipal or parent-controlled non-profit child care centres. However, the proportion of for-profit centres, which had declined for a decade, began increasing again in 2006, after the election of the Conservatives. Most provinces and territories now require at least some of the staff to have Early Childhood Education (ECE) training, but Canadian requirements for early childhood training are acknowledged to be less than adequate.

Quality child care is in short supply in Canada. Less than one out of every four children has access to regulated childcare.

Ready access to publicly delivered child care is found only in Quebec, where 70 per cent of children under five can access a child care space. Québec is also the province where the child care costs to parents are the lowest: parents pay $7 a day per child. Across the rest of the country, provision of child care services is uneven, sometimes inadequate and usually very expensive. Outside of Québec, less than 20% of all child care spaces are publicly regulated.

A system that is directly funded by parents

Canadian child care is funded mostly through parent fees (except in Quebec). Subsidies cover some or all of the costs in regulated child care for those parents who can secure one. But fee subsidies are targeted to very low-income parents, and there are long waiting lists for subsidized spaces. Many middle-class families are simply not able to afford regulated child care.

Canada is lagging behind other countries

Canada is one of only a few industrialized countries without a coherent and effective early childhood education and child care system. In many countries, governments have concluded that both are necessary and desirable – good for children, women, families, the economy and society. They have put public resources into building widely accessible and high-quality early childhood education and child care programs.

Providing universal quality, low cost public childcare can be done in Canada. Indeed, Québec has been doing it since 1998. The information Sheet “The Québec child care system” has more detailed information.

And Sweden is doing it even better: their child care system is fully funded by the national government, and delivered by municipalities. Eighty-five per cent (85%) of two and three year-old children are enrolled in child care programs, as are 46 per cent of babies who one year old. But thanks to generous parental leave, in 2005 there were only 30 infants under one year in child care.

In a 2008 report, UNICEF ranked Canada last out of 25 countries, because we had failed to meet nine out of ten of UNICEF’s benchmark indicators of quality and access to early childhood education and child care.

The Conservative government does not support child care

The Conservative government abolished the federal-provincial-territorial funding agreements on child care in 2006. It replaced the development of a public child care system with cash payments directly to parents ($100 a month for each child under 6). This just covers a Saturday night babysitter.

The Conservative government is neglecting child care because it actually wants more women to stay at home and take care of the kids. They call this “free choice in child care”, but staying at home rarely increases women’s choices in life. On the contrary — it has been proven that for every year a woman stays home to take care of the kids, she loses five per cent of her earning capacity for the rest of her life. Ten years means a loss of 30 per cent in pay and benefits. Mothers pay a high price for taking care of the human race.

Quality child care promotes children’s human rights

The United Nations actually considers access to child care a human rights issue, because quality child care helps promote children’s physical and mental health, emotional security, cultural and personal identity, and developing competencies. It is linked to children’s right to education and to maximum development. In 2005, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child urged governments to develop “comprehensive strategic and time-bound plans” and to increase the budget allocations for child care services.

…and promotes women’s equality

The UN also considers that child care is crucial for ensuring women’s equality. In 2008, the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) urged Canada to provide more child care spaces, with a particular attention to the needs of low-income women and Aboriginal women. It recommended that Canada do a cost analysis to assess the impact of the current lack of child care services on women.

Decent jobs for women

Publicly funded childcare is also good for workers. Most early child care educators in Canada are women. Not surprisingly, this is one of the lowest paid of all professions in the country. The median average full-time, full-year income for early childhood educators in 2006 was only $25,100. The public funding of child care services allows for child care unions to be organized and collective bargaining to be done at a central table. In Québec, this resulted in 35 per cent pay increases, access to a pension fund on retirement, and pay equity adjustments to their salaries of nine per cent.

Let’s rethink child care!

As the fourth wealthiest country in the world, there is no reason Canada can’t do better to provide for the needs of its children, women and families. This country has the capacity. What’s lacking is the political will to make the changes – everyone who cares for the quality of life that children have in Canada should be an advocate for child care.

The PSAC is working with the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) and other unions, and with the Child Care Advocacy Association of Canada and other child care advocates to make child care an election issue in 2015.


July 24, 2013