No licensed child care for majority of Canadian kids – Federal Election – No licensed child care for majority of Canadian kids: Waiting lists still long even though Tories pumped billions into child-care system
October 05, 2008. Laurie Monsebraaten

Like many working women in the Toronto area, Nada Quercia put her name on the waiting list at her local child-care centre as soon as she discovered she was pregnant.

She wanted her child to be in a licensed setting with trained professionals that would make for a smooth transition to school.

Four years later, she’s still waiting.

Quercia, now on maternity leave with her second child, and her husband, Danny Versperini, have pretty much given up hope.

“My son has been looked after by a woman in the neighbourhood,” says Quercia, a genetic counsellor at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children who lives with her family near Danforth and Coxwell Aves. “But he starts kindergarten next fall, and if he doesn’t get a child-care space at the school, I don’t know what we’ll do. I suppose we’ll have to look into hiring a nanny, but that’s definitely not my first choice.”

Choice in child care is what Prime Minister Stephen Harper promised in the last election with the Conservatives’ Universal Child Care Benefit, a taxable, $100-a-month payment to families for each child under age 6. The money, Harper said, would give all parents the ability to choose the child-care option that best suited their family needs. Since July 2006, some $5 billion has been spent on the initiative.

In addition to cash for parents, the Conservatives pledged $250 million per year in tax credits to help businesses and community groups create 125,000 new child-care spaces over five years. But employers weren’t keen to get into the child-care business, so the Tories folded the money into Ottawa’s annual social transfer to provinces.

It’s unclear how many spaces that money has created, because Ottawa hasn’t kept track. But a review of provincial daycare programs by the Toronto-based Child Care Resource and Research Unit shows growth in licensed daycare spots across the country is slowing. In 2006, just 26,600 new spaces opened in Canada, a drop from 32,600 in each of the previous two years and about half of the 51,000 a year that opened between 2001 and 2004.

The centre’s research shows that the percentage of Canadian children who have access to regulated child care has grown by just 10 per cent, to 17 per cent, in the past 15 years. And the bulk of those new spaces have been in Quebec.

At this rate, it would take another 60 years to reach universal supply, says the research unit’s Martha Friendly, who has been tracking child care in Canada for the past 30 years.

The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has singled out Canada on several occasions for its poor record on child care. A 2004 report blasted the country’s chronically underfunded patchwork of often mediocre programs run by underpaid and poorly trained staff. A 2006 report by the agency ranked Canada last among 14 Western nations in spending on early-learning, child-care and kindergarten programs – either through tax breaks, cash or services – putting us behind nearly every country in Europe and even the United States.

In Canada, fewer than one in five children under age 13 have access to licensed child care. Meanwhile, 71 per cent of mothers in two-parent families – and 83 per cent of single moms – are in the workforce.

“Monthly cheques (to parents) have been sent out since July 2006, but there has been no attempt to account for the dollars,” says Friendly. “What is it spent on? Does it deliver choice in child care? Does it help Canadians balance work and family? Is it a good use of $2.4 billion a year? We just don’t know.

“What we do know is that finding and affording high-quality early-childhood education and care continues to be an ongoing crisis for families. Indeed, since the Conservatives came to power in 2006, child-care space expansion dropped to its lowest level in some years.”

But the popularity of the Tory child-care benefit means no other party has risked proposing to scrap the cash and plough the money into more daycare spaces in this campaign.

The Conservative child-care benefit replaced the previous Liberal government’s five-year, $5-billion national child-care plan, aimed at creating 250,000 new high-quality, affordable and accessible spaces.

Under the ill-fated scheme, Ontario would have created 25,000 new affordable spaces by now, with more than 5,000 of them in Toronto. Instead, the province has been able to add just 15,000 new spaces, and Toronto has been able to create barely 2,000 new spots with the federal money.

Although the Liberals howled when Harper axed their child-care plan in favour of cash payments to parents, leader Stéphane Dion says if he’s elected he’ll keep the Tory benefit and add a new, $350 refundable child-tax credit to all families with children under age 18. But Dion says he’s committed to reviving the Liberals’ vision of a national child-care system and has promised to pump $1.25 billion into the creation of 165,000 new regulated spots within four years.

“Unfortunately, all too often, children are stuck on waiting lists because of a shortage of spaces,” Dion said at a Kitchener child-care centre last month. “And as every parent knows, no space means no choice.”

On the same day at Toronto’s East End Children’s Centre, NDP leader Jack Layton reminded voters of the Liberals’ spotty record on child care, noting that promises in the 1993 Liberal Red Book to invest in daycare were never realized. The Liberals’ 2005 plan was so tenuous that Harper was easily able to erase it, Layton said.

An NDP government in Ottawa would elevate child care to the same status as medicare by introducing legislation, similar to the Canada Health Act, that would make federal spending on high-quality, affordable and accessible child care the law of the land, Layton said. The NDP would also keep the Harper “baby bonus” but invest $1.45 billion in the first year of a mandate to create 150,000 new spaces, growing to 220,000 spots annually as federal finances allowed.

While less specific than the Liberals and the NDP, the Green Party also supports a federally funded national child-care system.

Leaside parents Chris Markham and Raghad Zaiyouna, whose children are 6, 3 and two months old, are relieved none of the parties wants to scrap the Tory child-care payments.

Unable to find daycare when their first child was born, Zaiyouna scaled back to part-time work, and for the past three years has relied on her mother and mother-in-law for help. Until Harper’s cash payments, they felt their family’s choice was being ignored.

“People who use child care can recover some of their costs through the child-care tax deduction,” Markham says. “But there’s no recognition of my wife’s loss of income or of our parents’ travel costs and time. The $100 payment begins to level the playing field. But so much more needs to be done.”

Markham, who works for a non-governmental agency promoting healthy, active lifestyles, realizes his family is lucky to have grandparents nearby who are willing and able to help. And he knows they were lucky to get child-care spaces in their local school this fall for their eldest two children, now in Grade 1 and junior kindergarten.

Etobicoke single mother Jennefer Desrochers is one of those parents. Two years ago she lost her job just as her network of family supports fell apart. Without child care for her two boys, then 2 and 7, she struggled to get back on her feet.

Last month she found a job and was thrilled to get a child-care spot in a neighbourhood centre. But on wages of just $11 an hour, there’s no way she can afford to pay almost $1,000 a month in fees. And with 14,500 other children in Toronto waiting for daycare subsidies, Desrochers is frantic.

“I borrowed money from a friend to pay the first week, and now I’m three weeks in arrears,” she says. “What is the government doing for me? I don’t want to sit at home and collect a welfare cheque. I want to contribute and be part of society. But without (affordable) child care, I can’t do that.”

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