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Most parents in Canada trying to find good, affordable child care quickly discover only one thing is going to help them—luck. These young families are left to fend for themselves because many of our governments either don’t believe that early childhood education and care are in the public interest or say they do, but don’t walk the talk. This despite overwhelming evidence that well-designed public systems of early childhood education and care are the best way for governments to support the well-being of children and families.

If we are serious about providing a strong foundation for children and helping parents balance work or study with family responsibilities, then governments must heed the solid evidence and move towards a system of integrated early childhood education and care services that is both publicly funded and delivered. Many industrialized countries already successfully blend early childhood education and child care into one universal public system. It is not unrealistic or a fantasy to think it can be done here—and done well. 

Pockets of public child care provision already exist in Canada: in more than half of Ontario’s municipalities, including the City of Toronto; Quebec’s school age child care system; and a few municipalities in Saskatchewan and Alberta. Some provinces are developing or contemplating new initiatives in early childhood education and care, including New Brunswick, Newfoundland and PEI.

Despite these encouraging developments, child care in Canada remains overwhelmingly privatized, fragmented and scarce.

Parents, volunteer groups and child care staff have historically borne the burden of creating and maintaining child care programs. These non-profit programs have been the backbone of providing child care services in Canada for decades, but are privately delivered.

Canada also has a rapidly growing commercial child care sector. Individual owners, along with local, national and some international chains now account for 25 per cent of all child care spaces in the country.

In fact, no country in the world can claim to have a successful, privatized early childhood education and care system. Canada is no exception to this rule. Our privatized, fee-based approach does not work for parents, children or the staff who provide early childhood services. There’s not enough child care to meet the need, and what exists is unaffordable for most families.

A public system would provide direct and adequate funding to programs, removing the reliance on parent fees as the primary source of income and making any services and any remaining fees affordable to everyone.

A public system would ensure staff had better wages, working conditions, support, training opportunities and representation by unions. It would create good jobs, not just any kind of jobs.

A public system would create the conditions for delivering high quality programs and meeting families’ needs by emphasizing planning, target-setting, accountability, quality improvement and evaluation. In other words, a public system would be designed to put children and families first.

It’s difficult to know what more is needed to convince governments, especially the federal government, to take a leadership role in child care. But what we can do is work to convince the new provincial government in Nova Scotia that moving towards a public system of early childhood education and care is not just the right thing to do for children and families, but in terms of social, economic and health policy and outcomes, it’s the smart thing to do for this province.

Martha Friendly is the Director of the Child Care Resource Centre at the University of Toronto and the co-author of a new book on child care entitled, About Canada: Child Care.

Danny Cavanagh is the president of CUPE Nova Scotia.