Paul Whyte | CUPE Staff
Alia Karim | CUPE Staff

On March 8, 2021, for International Women’s Day, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised a recovery plan that will help women bounce back from COVID-19. Acknowledging the current ‘she- cession’, he said his government will “ensure a feminist, intersectional recovery from this crisis”.

At that time, another report highlighted the substantial job loss among women, particularly those who earn low incomes.

In fact, in the first two months of the pandemic, the total hours worked by women fell by 30 per cent and women in the services sector lost their jobs at nearly twice the rate of men.

A month later, the federal government tabled a budget that was said to focus on women, families and revitalizing the economy. More than half of that budget would go toward a national early learning and child care policy that prioritizes lowered parent fees and space expansion. But why has it taken Canada so long to move toward universal child care?

Child care at a tipping point

The pre-pandemic social status and economic sovereignty that Canadian women have fought for, for generations, are highly dependent on their ability to go to school, learn new skills, and make career advancements. But women also take on more responsibilities for raising children — another cause of the massive exodus of women from the workforce during the pandemic.

During COVID-19, emergency child care for front-line workers ensured that our hospitals, grocery stores, water, electricity, along with so many other fundamental services could keep running.

Without child care, and without the women providing many of our other vital services, sectors necessary for the survival of our country would collapse.

The need for child care didn’t suddenly arise because of the pandemic, the pandemic instead showcases the urgency of its need.

For decades, there simply haven’t been enough child care spaces. Parent fees are far too high. Early childhood educators and child care workers are woefully underappreciated, and they are leaving or not entering the sector as a result.

Countless centres were forced to close their doors forever, and new capacity limits led to sweeping layoffs in 2020 where more than 25 per cent of child care workers were left jobless. Statistics Canada reports that child care employment has declined by nearly 50 per cent in the last two years.

It took a global health crisis for decision makers to reprioritize child care, giving it the attention it deserves during a time when it was needed most. But this recognition wasn’t met with enough resources needed to ensure the safety or viability of the sector.

Decades of chronic underfunding, the absence of policy that enshrines decent work standards, the lack of safety measures against COVID-19, and a pervasive, often sexist view of the role of child care are key indicators that provinces must remedy the worker shortage in the sector with decent wages and working conditions.

The Canada-wide Early Learning and Child Care Plan is an opportunity for large-scale change in the sector, if done right. The plan begins to establish an elevated baseline of what child care and early learning must be, but still has a long way to go to be a truly universal system.

A system of universal, not-for-profit, accessible, and affordable child care and early learning is needed for a feminist social and economic recovery.

Canada’s investment of $27 billion over five years includes $2.5 billion for Indigenous early learning and child care, and the following key goals:

• Achieve up to $10-per-day child care in licensed spaces by the end of 2026.

• Create more than 30,000 new spaces within five years.

• Reduce parent fees by 50 per cent by the end of 2022.

Capped parent fees are one step in the right direction – a victory from decades of advocacy by early childhood educators and activists.

Under the new child care plan, families in British Columbia will save an average of $6,000 per year per child. In Alberta, a similar, annual cost saving of $5,610 is already helping families.

There are also big promises for the expansion of child care spaces and jobs. B.C. and Alberta are each expected to create 40,000 new child care spaces and nearly 10,000 new early childhood educator jobs, according to Employment and Social Development Canada.

Ontario has been the lone holdout province in Canada yet to pen a deal, as of the time of writing. Child care advocates suspect that the Progressive Conservative government is trying to protect the interests of for-profit operators.

But if Ontario hasn’t signed a deal by March 31, they could lose this year’s $1 billion in funding.

Carrie Lynn Poole-Cotnam is CUPE Ontario’s Social Services Sector Chair and Treasurer of CUPE 503 that represents 19 municipal child care centres. She sits on the board of the Ontario Coalition for Better Child Care, and for the past 14 years she has been a champion for affordable, public child care.

“While the rest of Canada is moving forward with reduced parent fees, space expansions, and increased federal funding, families in Ontario continue to be significantly impacted by Doug Ford’s refusal to sign onto the national child care deal,” she says. “Ontario must pen a deal that includes a workforce strategy with a $25 wage floor and affordable fees, and prevent for-profit expansion in the sector.”

Moving toward universal, public, and not-for-profit child care in all provinces

Quebec has led the way toward a system of universal child care in the country, with the introduction of their Family Policy in 1997 and a commitment to reduce parent fees, today at $8.70-a-day, years before the federal government unveiled their $10-a-day plan. Quebec’s female labour force participation has increased substantially ever since, and is now the highest in Canada.

Yet, women in Quebec still felt the impact of an inadequate child care system during the pandemic. Many lost their jobs or had to make tremendous sacrifices to balance family, work, and other responsibilities. Over 51,000 additional subsidized child care spaces are still needed to meet demand.

Quebec’s major staffing crisis, with a shortfall of nearly 10,000 workers, was at the core of province-wide work stoppages in the past two years, which have informed provincial law reform currently underway. A lack of recognition of child care workers, low wages and poor working conditions, are causing major recruitment and retention challenges in the province.

Canada’s child care workforce is comprised primarily of women and more than one third of the sector’s workers are immigrants and non- permanent residents, according to the 2016 census. Therefore, it is especially important that decision makers prioritize improving working conditions to address crucial issues of equity in this historically underfunded sector.

Provinces such as British Columbia, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba have recently made progress by committing to a provincial wage grid. But if these grids do not significantly raise pay rates, especially when compared to male-dominated jobs of equal value, women workers in child care will continue to be neglected. Workers also need to have access to adequate paid sick days, benefits, pensions, planning time, and paid time for professional training.

“We still have a long way to go in B.C., but the government has done some good work to make child care more accessible, and some, but not enough work to improve the pay and working conditions for child care workers, especially those in the public sector. That’s why it’s so important to have child care be a public service — publicly funded and publicly delivered,” says Valeria Mancilla, child care program manager at the Graham Bruce School Age Program and member of CUPE 1936.

We need more spaces for child care and early learning to meet the demand.

The federal government must do more to address chronic issues in the sector, such as compelling provinces to create a wage grid starting at $25.00/ hour, drastically improving benefits and working conditions, allocating money for new publicly operated child care spaces, and curtailing for-profit child care expansion. Provinces must be held accountable. This, in turn, will result in higher quality care and education for our little ones.

Supporting publicly operated child care and its workforce is key to high-quality services for our little ones

Public and not-for-profit child care consistently receive higher quality ratings than for-profit centres. They are more likely to hire more and better trained staff, have lower child-to-worker ratios, and promote working conditions that reduce turnover rates and increase morale. These conditions therefore lead to higher quality of care and learning outcomes for children.

Concern with waitlists and the inadequate supply of licensed child care spaces is high in many parts of Canada. Most provincial agreements promise immense targets for child care expansion, but they have not figured out how exactly these targets will be achieved.

Some provinces are rightfully prioritizing funding and support for not-for-profit child care. British Columbia, for instance, will incentivize the creation of spaces in public and not-for-profit centres and by Indigenous governments.

Nova Scotia’s new child care agreement also moves toward a not-for-profit model. The provincial government announced an average 25 per cent reduction in parent fees. For-profit centres can join the agreement if they abide by the new provincial standards — they will have to pay workers the provincial wage rate and charge no more than the provincially-set parent fee.

Others are choosing to continue allowing for-profit enterprise to cash in on child care. Such is the case in Alberta and Manitoba where federal funding is directed toward increasing eligibility for their subsidy programs, but little is done to challenge the market-driven approach to child care.

The future of public and not-for-profit child care expansion is uncertain. For-profit operators are pushing back against these new agreements, and public and not-for-profit centres will need help to recover from the financial impacts of the pandemic. The federal and provincial governments should make a plan to earmark funding specifically for public and not-for-profit child care expansion, or else, the dream of universal child care is at stake.

A strategy informed by child care workers is the only way to create a system of universal, accessible, and affordable child care that can truly help families recover from the pandemic and increase the participation of women in our economy.

Child Care Facts

  • Affordable child care is estimated to raise real GDP by 1.2 per cent in the next two decades.
  • The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives estimates that more than 776,000 children live in child care deserts where there is zero access to quality, licensed child care.
  • Child care workers across the country are demanding at least $25/hour wages to begin addressing the chronic undervaluing of their profession.
  • Weekly earnings in the child care sector are low: an average of just $640 per week in 2019, almost 40 per cent below the average earnings in the broader economy.

Quebec: Do as I say, not as I do

A year ago, thousands of Quebec mothers who couldn’t go back to work or school mobilized to create Ma place au travail, a provincial movement in response to the shortage of child care spaces and of early childhood educators.

“Quebec’s child care can be inspiring, but maybe there is a little bit of oil missing in the machine for it to run well. We cannot say that our system is accessible. We’ve been talking about insurmountable waiting lists for the past 20 years and, therefore, many families don’t have access to CPEs,” says Isabelle Girard, president of CUPE 3280. “I was fortunate 17 years ago, when my son got in a CPE, and I was able to go back to work and bring some money home. Today it is much worse, many women aren’t as lucky.”

Girard says that she receives calls from mothers, members of her local, who must either terminate their employment or ask for unpaid leave, which may or may not be granted by the employer. She says their children are sometimes aged two or older, and they are still waiting for a subsidized space as they can’t afford private child care.

According to Girard, increasing wages is part of the solution to the shortage of child care workers. But to attract and retain them in this profession, they must also feel recognized as professional, competent workers, whom we value because they are taking care of our children and educating them in their most formative years.

BC: Child care shouldn’t stop at age five

In British Columbia, the BCNDP provincial government is committed to $10-a-day child care, a model CUPE BC strongly supports and advocates for. The federal government is providing significant resources supporting child care for kids aged 0-5, but what’s missing is new spaces for school-aged kids.

Ultimately a public system of universal affordable child care integrated with the existing public school system is the best system for B.C. families. Before and after school care provided by public schools is a solution that is right in front of us. The spaces already exist, and education assistants, the majority of whom do not receive full-time hours, are qualified to do the work.

CUPE BC, in partnership with CUPE National, has been campaigning to build popular support and demand for bringing before- and after-school care into public schools. Momentum behind this concept is growing, with thousands of people calling on their local school trustees to create child care spaces in public schools.

Take action today and let decision makers know you support bringing child care into BC’s public schools: