Why the battle over child care might not be about us

There’s been lots of talk about Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau saying he doesn’t want to see provinces set up their own “government-subsidized” child care policies that would compete with the federal government’s early learning and child care program.

Last week, Ontario Premier Doug Ford echoed Trudeau’s sentiment about Canada’s child care program, saying he doesn’t want it to expand because Ford says there’s too much “wasteful spending” on it.

READ MORE: Doug Ford calls out Ottawa on child care funding

While Ottawa is technically paying for most of the expansion, provincial programs are picking up the remaining costs, including at local preschools and daycares.

The federal government has proposed new child care funding through a special tax credit program that wouldn’t require the provinces to expand their provincial child care programs, and in the meantime, has proposed that the federal government assume all existing provincial costs for creating affordable child care programs.

That funding is proposed to start next year, with a total of $4.4 billion available for provinces over five years.

All of this talk about competing against the federal program might distract from the fact that some provinces are getting ready to expand their own programs and give residents another quality option.

Last week, for example, Montreal-based daycare provider Penna Group announced a funding partnership with the federal government. The grant will allow Penna to expand the number of its low-fee daycares in Ontario and Quebec, in addition to its franchises in Atlantic Canada. The federal grant will help Penna reduce the cost of daycare for local families.

Ottawa’s proposed grant program isn’t the only potential federal support for daycare programs. Last week, Scott Brison, the Conservative MP for Nova Scotia, said he would introduce legislation to create a national child care program that would replace the federal child care and education system. The new program would be primarily funded by the federal government with the help of provincial subsidies.

READ MORE: Two-thirds of Canadians want a national child care program – and a majority support child care taxes

There was a time not long ago when we wouldn’t have thought of child care as competition between provinces.

Back in the 1960s, there were only a handful of systems in Ontario. Most of the ones that cropped up across the country were funded by local communities.

“My mother hated the huge parks system, she hated being in nature – it was like living in a military camp,” said Tim Jackson, the executive director of the advocacy group Early Learning and Child Care and an early childhood teacher. “The only reasons that children might go to daycare was that they would go to school or because the government gave them a stipend.”

These days, it’s fair to say that children are getting that chance: It used to be that they had to wait three, four or five years for an early childhood education program. Now they have access to daycare as early as age 2.

But schools are not a one-size-fits-all experience. Child care providers look for students with the right cognitive, social and physical development in order to build a strong academic foundation. Child care providers and educators sometimes might make mistakes – some students aren’t receiving enough attention. And more kids are starting to come from less stable homes, because more parents are working.

Those factors might not be obvious if you look at the statistics. “We are looking at early childhood education through a very fuzzy lens,” said Jackson.

That’s not to say that there aren’t significant disagreements between the federal and provincial governments about child care policies.

Canadians don’t seem to like the idea of allowing provinces to set up their own government-subsidized child care programs. Ottawa’s free child care plan sounds too generous for most Canadians, and not unlike what Ford said, it could give parents more options for child care and undercut the cost of early learning programs in some provinces. But the federal and provincial governments have to come together and find a way to play nice and collaborate on this issue. It’s clearly a case of ensuring there’s enough “wasteful spending” on the federal and provincial sides.

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