This week, the Ontario government and the City of Toronto pledged increased spending for new daycare spaces.In March, the federal government promised $7.5 billion over 10 years to create additional childcare spaces nationally.
Andrea Mrozek, program director for Cardus Family, tells Convivium’s Peter Stockland that Canadians from coast-to-coast are paying for Toronto’s empty daycares – and probably for many more in cities and towns across the country.
Why? Because, Mrozek says, of an unshakable ideological refusal by politicians, policy makers, and activists to actually listen to what parents want.
Convivium: What led Cardus Family to file an access to information request on daycare vacancies in Toronto, and come up with this new data?
Andrea Mrozek: In 2015 we did a story about daycare spaces in Toronto and we wanted to find out vacancy rates. It was a bit easier back in 2015 but now information about daycare surpluses in Toronto is only accessible through freedom of information requests. They don't make it publicly accessible on their website.
What the data shows is that there are increasing vacancy rates in daycare spaces in Toronto, which is a story line that we simply aren't hearing. What we generally hear about are the wait lists, the demand, the increase in demand, and the lack of availability of spaces.
By contrast, the vacancy rate for rental units in Toronto is substantially lower. Yet we don't hear about a crisis in availability of rental units.
Convivium: Why are the spaces empty?
AM: The City of Toronto gives its own reasons, which include things like children aging out of the system. That is really the bread and butter of daycare. We obviously know children are not in childcare forever.
I believe the spaces result from providing the type of (care) parents do not choose to use. It is not the first or second choice of parents to use institutional daycare spaces. That reality is absolutely incomprehensible to most of the people working on childcare policy. Be it federally, provincially or municipally, they just can't get their heads around the fact that these spaces are not the desired type of care that parents ask for.
When you ask parents what they actually want, they say they prefer if a parent can stay home. If that's not possible, they want local neighbourhood home care centers that are small and accessible. But what we're being provided by the government through vast amounts of funding are these institutional daycare spaces. I don't think parents are choosing to use them because it's not what they prefer for their children.
Convivium: We've been told for a generation there is a crippling need for a government funded national daycare program. The Cardus Family data indicate that in the largest city in the country, and by far the most business-oriented city in the country where both parents have to work just to pay the mortgage, the demand for daycare might not be quite so crippling. But don’t daycare wait lists tell a different story?
AM: The wait lists are very misleading because people put their children on wait lists when they’re conceived, before the child is even born. Such is the anxiety level, I think, courtesy of a lot of hype around this via the media. Wait lists are unreliable.
The other problem is subsidies. The City of Toronto would claim that the spaces aren't being used because parents who desperately want to use them can't afford them. The question I would ask is, if that's the case, then why isn’t the City’s response to increase the subsidies rather what they've done? In a new report they’ve just released, they suggest they're going to create "thousand" more spaces instead of tackling the subsidy problem to fill the spaces that we already have. I believe there's an ideological agenda that demands we have to have a certain type of care.
Convivium: Is it possible these are spaces underneath a freeway or not physically accessible for desperate parents who desperately need to drop off desperate children for desperate care reasons?
AM: I'd love for the media to be asking the city of Toronto that kind of question. We don't get a lot of detail about where the spaces are. You can understand absolutely that if you live in Scarborough, and there's a free space in Etobicoke, it's really not helpful to your family. But because of the secrecy, we don't get that much information about these publicly funded daycare spaces. That's not right. We need to be given more information on where these spaces are, and if they're low quality or if they are not being used for other reasons. I mean there could be all kinds of reasons they're not being used.
Incidentally, another thing the City of Toronto said is that the spaces aren't being used because new daycare centers take time for parents to learn about and then come to use. I'm sceptical. If the need is so desperate, it's not going to take that long for parents to find out about good licensed childcare.
Convivium: Can this be extrapolated beyond Toronto? Is your sense it is really much more of a national problem than just a Toronto-centred problem?
AM: Well, there are two reasons this is a national issue, not a Toronto issue. One is that the city of Toronto wants Canadians to pay for their new daycare system. So when they put forward their plan that runs into the billions of dollars, they asked that the province and the federal government fund 80 per cent of it. So, that makes this into a national issue.
The other point is that many other cities across the country have the same problem with wait lists that are unreliable, and activists claiming high demand. We can assume that some of the problems of Toronto are happening outside of Toronto. For example, in British Columbia right now there’s a provincial election going on where daycare is coming up as a big issue. Some political candidates are offering $10-a-day care.
Parents need to be hugely sceptical. If that money were given to parents instead of being put into spaces, parents would have so many options. They would able to pay a nanny or a family member, an aunt or an uncle. If we're worried about poverty rates, I mean the amount of money they're putting into daycare could certainly make a dent in family poverty rates as well.
Convivium: You mentioned the secrecy, the difficulty of having to go through Access to Information to get what should be public information. I suspect Cardus Family might be doing more research to find out exactly what goes on nationally.
AM: Well, I'd love to do that kind of work and take a look outside of Toronto to see what specific vacancy rates exist in these forms of care.
Convivium: And if people have information, they should probably let you know.