Too many empty moral victories – comment – Too many empty moral victories
April 09, 2008
Carol Goar

My feminist credentials falter whenever I confront the issue of child care.

For 30 years, the women’s movement has been fighting for a universal system of preschool care and learning. Yet it has disparaged every federal attempt to put affordable child care within the reach of working parents, claiming there was too much commercial involvement, too little public money and too great a danger of low-quality care.

Today, one in six Canadian children has access to regulated daycare.

Expectant mothers have to sign up for child care as soon as they conceive. Parents have to grab any available babysitter. Many women simply can’t work outside the home.

Now the Ontario Coalition for Better Child Care has launched a new campaign. It is calling for a moratorium on for-profit child-care centres.

“During the past decade, corporate child care has taken over child care in Australia and accessibility, quality and affordability have taken a back seat to corporate profits,” the group says. “We need a moratorium on new licences for commercial operators.”

Restricting the supply of child care, when there is so much need, strikes me as ill-advised.

A universal, affordable, public child-care system would be preferable to a patchwork of private, public and non-profit centres. But a whole generation of kids has grown up waiting for that to become a reality.

I first tangled with child-care advocates in the 1980s. Brian Mulroney had offered to spend $6.4 billion to create 200,000 new child-care spaces. His plan called for a mix of public and private facilities.

Women’s groups denounced it as grossly inadequate and seriously flawed. They cheered when the legislation died on the order paper in 1988.

I believed then – as I do today – that Mulroney wanted to be the prime minister who made child care a reality. I wonder where we’d be today if he had succeeded.

Convinced they’d saved the country from a bad program, child-care advocates placed their hopes on Jean Chrétien, who pledged to create 50,000 child-care spaces a year, provided the provinces put up half the money.

But several premiers balked, fearing they would end up footing more than their share of the bill. Child-care advocates, meanwhile, insisted that nothing but high-quality, publicly funded, licensed facilities would do.

While the two levels of government squabbled, Ontarians elected Mike Harris, who categorically opposed institutionalized child care.

By the end of the Chrétien era, a trickle of federal money was flowing to the provinces for child care, but none went into new spaces in Ontario.

Paul Martin vowed to do better. He promised to spend $5 billion to lay the foundation for a national system of early learning and child care.

He assigned the task to Social Development Minister Ken Dryden. Once again, child-care advocates pressed their case for a publicly funded system of regulated non-profit centres.

At a national child conference in Winnipeg, Dryden pleaded for flexibility. “My biggest fear is that, in the months ahead, the history of little fights will distract us and de-energize from the big fight,” he told 650 participants. “I am not a perfectionist. I want to win.”

He did pull together agreements with all 10 provinces, some of which included private child care. But the achievement didn’t last. Just as his framework was completed, the Liberals lost power. Stephen Harper scrapped their program.

Ottawa is now out of the child-care business. It merely provides $100-a-month allowances to parents of preschoolers.

Ontario has belatedly assumed its role. It is drawing up a plan for full-day kindergarten, which would take 4- and 5-year-olds out of child-care centres. But it won’t be introduced until 2010. And there still won’t be nearly enough spots.

In short, parents are going to be scrambling for years.

A ban on private child care won’t help them. It would save them from an imperfect choice, but leave them with no choice.

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