Throne speech breathes new life into an old, empty promise: a national child-care program


It has been 50 years since the Royal Commission on the Status of Women made it clear that access to affordable child care is one of the biggest hurdles standing in the way of women’s economic equality, and numerous governments of the five decades since then have claimed to want to tackle the problem head-on.

The Liberals promised it in their famous Red Book in 1993, and 11 years later Paul Martin promised something similar in the 2004 campaign he lost, as did Michael Ignatieff in 2011. And the New Democrats made $15-a-day daycare a campaign pledge in their failed bid for power in 2015.

Wednesday’s speech from the throne suggests the current government wants to be the latest to claim to have taken a crack at it.

“The government will make a significant, long-term, sustained investment to create a Canada-wide early-learning and child-care system,” Gov. Gen. Julie Payette said in the speech, without elaborating on just what, exactly, that means.

Throne speeches are always about big-picture thinking, not nitty-gritty details, and Wednesday’s child-care news was no exception. Instead of a concrete plan, the government says it wants to “build on previous investments … and work with all provinces and territories to ensure that high-quality care is accessible to all.”

And while experts in the field welcome the issue getting some attention, it’s still far from clear what exactly the government is planning to do.

Leah Nord of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, had been urging the government to lay out programs to assist female businesses owners and employees, and child care was at the top of that wish list. 

“Child care is the No.1 issue for entrepreneurs,” she said in an interview after the speech on Wednesday. “If employees can’t get child care, there’s no business to open up and there is no economic recovery.”

Although expensive to set up and operate, research suggests that top-quality early childhood education programs pay off down the line by improving incomes and other outcomes. (Jean Laroche/CBC)

While Nord is encouraged to hear the government has a vague plan to address the issue, “the devil is in the details,” she said.

If not a government-run system, she said she would like to see Ottawa help businesses that are trying to solve child-care problems for their employees, such as a brewery in Thunder Bay that recently launched a daycare centre for its workers so that they could be available to get back to work.

“It’s that type of innovative thinking the government can really use,” Nord said. “If we could have had child care covered in the wage subsidy, that would have been great.”

Toronto entrepreneur Reena Parekh is among those who thinks something must be done. As a fitness instructor, she lost most of her business when gyms and fitness centres shut down in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.

She pivoted to move as much of her business online as possible, but with two small children to care for and a partner who works outside the home six days a week, she said it’s next to impossible to do it all.

“There’s been days when I thought I should just stop, why bother right now,” she told CBC News.

WATCH | The government’s plan for child care is outlined in the throne speech:

Gov. Gen. Julie Payette delivered the 150th speech from the throne in the Senate chamber on Wednesday. 1:42

“I want to hear what are we going to do to bring women back into the workforce,” Parekh said prior to the speech.

“I want to hear more about support for working parents [because] that balance is just not sustainable,” she said. “It needs more funding, frankly, and accessible child care.”

Janet Davis, a former Toronto city councillor who is now a fellow at the Broadbent Institute, a progressive non-partisan organization, has been an advocate for a national child-care program for most of her career, and she said she’s “hopeful” that this time will, in fact, be different.

While far from perfect, she said Quebec’s system could be a model for the rest of the country. Implemented in 1997, families in the province were guaranteed a spot in a child-care centre offering high-quality, subsidized care for as little as $5 a day when it started in 1997, although the costs have risen since then.

Davis said previous attempts to start a similar program in other provinces or nationally fell apart because provinces were unwilling to cede control of any new program to the federal government — which in turn was unwilling to demand accountability for the money it was willing to contribute. But she said she hopes that won’t happen this time.

“Women need it. The economy needs it, and our federal and provincial governments have to work together to deliver it,” she said in an interview on Wednesday.

Laideen Dockery is among those who knows how crucial child care will be to a full economic recovery. The Toronto-area entrepreneur and owner of her own financial consultancy said it is a problem at the best of times, but even more so during the ongoing pandemic.

Her partner, a front-line worker, worked out of the home throughout the pandemic, which left more of the child-care responsibilities on Dockery while she juggled client meetings and tried to keep up business as usual.

“It really affected my ability to work on my own business,” she said, “so I’ve had a decrease in income.”

Working mothers like Dockery and Parekh are hopeful that political talk may finally turn into action.

“This is not just a women’s issue, this is an economic issue,” Parekh said. “It’s time we started looking at real solutions.”

Read more at CBC.ca