The $ 30 billion child care challenge: building a new program from scratch

Ottawa has child care deals with various provinces, but experts say building a viable national child care system means turning a market into a government program and low-wage child care workers into one. new professional class.

The federal government announced in April that it was providing about $ 30 billion over five years to help provinces offset the costs of a national early learning and child care program.

The plan is to cut child care costs in half in the first year and reduce daily costs to $ 10 per day per child in participating provinces within five years.

Agreements have been made with every province and territory except Ontario and Nunavut, but these agreements are just the beginning.

“The way child care has evolved in Canada is that it’s a market, it’s not really a system,” said Martha Friendly, executive director of the Childcare Resource and Research Unit, an advocacy group. childcare services. “The consensus is that the market really doesn’t work for child care in a number of ways.”

Friendly said the legacy of private, market-based child care services is the low pay of child care workers. Salaries still represent 85 to 90 percent of a nonprofit child care provider’s total budget, she said.

According to a report by the Childcare Resource and Research Unit, the median annual salary of a Canadian educator in 2015 was $ 34,192; this figure varied from province to province. The median wage was highest in the Northwest Territories at $ 42,862; New Brunswick child care workers earned the least – an average of $ 27,817.

Wages in Quebec are now going to be much higher than the 2015 average of $ 35,022 per year because child care workers in the province quit their jobs to protest low wages. In December, the Quebec government reached an agreement whereby early childhood educators will receive an 18 percent salary increase and support staff will receive a 12.5 percent increase.

“The problem with the situation in the childcare market that we have is that, essentially, the parents’ fees are opposed to the wages and working conditions of the workforce,” Friendly said.

To cut costs without government help, workers’ already low wages would have to be cut, making staff retention even more problematic.

According to the same report, monthly child care fees in 2018 ranged from a high of $ 1,207 in Toronto to $ 179 per month in Quebec, where a provincial system – much like the one the federal government is trying to put in place. in place – already exists.

“There are a number of people … almost all of them women, young women, who decide to become early childhood educators and enter colleges to get certified,” said Morna Ballantyne, executive director of Child Care Now.

“The problem is, once they graduate and… look for a job, that’s when they realize that most places don’t pay a living wage. After being trained, they could enter [child care] but the problem is, they don’t stay. “

Experts say a national child care program should be built on a salary grid that sets minimum wages and indicates how they will increase over time.

“In all of our agreements, all provinces and territories must agree on a salary grid, because we recognize that this is one of the most important areas in order to be able to develop the child care system. , but also to be able to professionalize social workers as well, ”Minister of Families, Children and Social Development, Karina Gould, told CBC News.

“Different provinces have different salary grids and scales… We kind of have a minimum that we need because we know that in order to keep [workers], you have to make sure that you pay them correctly. “

Pensions, necessary benefits, according to defenders

Gould wouldn’t say what that minimum is. A government official speaking on the merits explained that the federal government does not set a minimum wage but leaves that to the provinces to determine. The role of the federal government does not extend beyond asking for a salary grid, the official said.

Child care advocates also say workers need benefits and pensions to encourage them to stay. Gould said the federal government is limiting its efforts to encourage, rather than demand, benefits and pensions for child care workers.

“It’s not something the federal government specifically requires, but we certainly encourage it,” she said, adding that benefits and pensions are the responsibility of the provincial governments who oversee the programs.

When the Liberals presented their child care plan, they promised to create 250,000 new child care spaces across the country. At a ratio of about one apprenticeship / child care worker for every six children, Canada will need to attract over 40,000 new workers to the industry.

Raising wages and benefits would help, but Canada still needs more child care, Friendly said.

“We have child care deserts, where we have no child care because no one has come forward to… initiate [it],” she said.

In order to ensure that there are enough places, she said, the construction of day care centers should be included in urban planning as public schools are currently.

A lack of places

According to the same report from the Childcare Resource and Research Unit, there were enough spaces across the country for only about 30% of children aged 12 and under in 2019. The problem varies by province.

Quebec, with its own child care system, had enough places for about 57% of children under 12 in 2019. In Newfoundland and Labrador the same year, there were no places. than for 13% of children. Nunavut had space for just under 12 percent of its children and Saskatchewan only had space for 9.5 percent of children 12 and under.

Experts say it could take up to 10 years to get a fully functioning program in place.

“Building a system like child care, health care, public education or colleges and universities is something that has to be done over time. You need people to work there and work there, ”Friendly said.

“It’s a long-term proposition, I hope some people will feel the effects right away, and others in four or five years.”

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