Convivium was a project of Cardus 2011‑2022, and is preserved here for archival purposes.
What’s Wrong With Canada’s Child Care Picture?What’s Wrong With Canada’s Child Care Picture?

What’s Wrong With Canada’s Child Care Picture?

Peter Jon Mitchell, acting director of Cardus Family, details a new report showing how federal and provincial child care policies distort the way Canadians care for their kids.

Peter Stockland
Peter Jon Mitchell
6 minute read

Peter Stockland: You’ve just come out with the four briefs presenting a positive view of child care. That presumes that there's a negative view of child care. Doesn’t everybody love caring for children? What's the negative view of child care?

Peter Jon Mitchell: Well, policy in Canada tends to push towards a universal system, a one-size-fits-all. That's what we see advocated quite often. That's what we’ve seen pushed for certainly in federal policy discussions. Going back 10, 20 years ago, there was a push for universal system. What we're suggesting is there's an alternative vision for child care in Canada that is more equitable for all families than a one-size-fits-all policy.

PS: I think you also argue that the negativity is in many ways generated by every statistic being skewed towards the negative side. If there's a problem in child care, that part represents the whole even though statistically it that may be a mere fraction of the larger child care picture, right?

PJM: Yes. For example, Statistics Canada released some data on who uses child care and why, particularly at the provincial level. We looked at the data and felt the story was quite compelling. It actually showed parents use diverse daycare options, and that about 60 per cent of kids under the age of six are currently in a non-parent daycare. That means there's 40 per cent out there who aren't in a daycare and the ones in child care are in diverse forms of care. So really by our calculations on the Stats Can data, about 31 per cent of children are in a daycare setting, yet it gets get the most attention, the most funding.

PS: Yeah. You say in the brief, child care is the care of a child regardless of who provides the care. Are you some kind of heretic? Do you not understand that's no longer the correct definition or are you just being insistent that reality prevail and that if you're looking after a child, you're actually caring for the child? 

PJM: Certainly, I think language does formulate the debate. I think that's why it's so interesting to go back and look at the data and see how it is that families are actually managing their care needs. Whether that's non-parental care, through a centre or through families, a relative or through a family-based neighborhood care, or whether they're making arrangements in sacrifices to look after their own children. That's all child care and I think our policies need to reflect that's the way folks organize their lives.

PS: Walk us through how stark the contrast is between what we're used to hearing from media reports, from the advocacy groups and so on versus across the four jurisdictions you study. How big is the gap? 

PJM: I think there certainly is a gap. We often hear that child care is a crisis in Canada, that it's very dire, that people aren't able to find care, they're on wait lists. And there certainly are people who have trouble finding care. Certainly non-parental child care is expensive. But the data shows us that about 64 per cent of Canadians have no problem when they went to find care. So certainly, I think that situation is one we should be talking about. It is a public policy issue, but I'm not sure the way that it has been framed nationally, or in the provinces, is really accurate to what people are experiencing. If we want to be evidence-based in our policies, we need to maybe rethink some of our language and how we're framing this.

PS: You chose to look at the federal child care approach. Ottawa obviously doesn't have direct jurisdiction in child care, but as you point out they are still managing to spend $7.5 billion dollars over 11 years on it. But you also chose to study Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia? Was there a particular reason for selecting those provinces?

PJM: We could've done any province. This is an issue obviously across Canada. In Ontario, there is a new tax credit that's coming into effect that would be applied a little more broadly beyond just center-based care. At the same time, the Ontario government is putting money towards expanding daycare spaces, so they sort of have this dual policy. Alberta is in the midst of evaluating a program that subsidizes daycare costs to a cap of about $25 a day. And so they're going to need to make a decision on the future of that program.

At the same time, they subsidize many different types of care for low income, medium income people. This has also been a big issue in British Columbia as well with a transition towards a $10 a day system. These are pressing issues in those provinces, so we thought it was important to really look at the data to understand the situation.

PS: The caps you've identified there, do they basically flow from the Quebec model? Is there an attempt to kind of mirror what's being done in Quebec and its famous $7 daycare? 

PJM: Those universal systems hold up Quebec as the model to which they want to generally emulate. That model is not without its issues and without its concerns. Certainly outcomes for children have not been fantastic. Studies looking at academic outcomes have found that there's not really anything to suggest it's been overly beneficial. There is some benefit, it seems for lower income children, but overall there really haven't been benefits. There have been issues noted around anxiety and behavioral issues.

There was a study done in 2005 that noted this, and a few academics a few years later looked at this study were dubious. So they replicated the original study and found that actually not only was it quite robust, but the findings had actually increased. And so there's been a number of studies even out of that that have looked at sort of the outcomes of these programs. Daycare advocates often push quality care as a big value and we can understand why we want our children to be in quality care. But the care in Quebec has not been that fabulous either. Much of it has been a rated mediocre or low.

PS: You chose to skip Quebec, at least this time. Did you make a conscious choice that Quebec's been studied enough or we know enough of it that it doesn't really illuminate anything new?

PJM: I think it'd be interesting to go back and look at Quebec at another time. A quick look in the numbers shows that many more folks there use centre-based care because it's funded, it's cheaper, it's the model that people drive to, but I still hear from people that for them that type of care just doesn't work for their family and they expect to look for other options. It is often the model that is talked about and I was interested about what was happening to other provinces that maybe tend to look at that model and wonder if it's right for their province.

PS: You have landed this as a federal election's has been called. What kind of feedback are you getting? You've been out in the media quite a bit, and talking to different people at various levels. What kind of feedback are you getting. Are people paying attention to this and saying, "Okay, we need to take child care into account as a serious election issue?" 

PJM: I think people have been intrigued by new data that is a little bit counter to the narrative they're used to hearing. There's still a kind of a wait and see perspective on just what role child care will play in the election. It'll be interesting to see as the platforms roll out, what's there. Over the last election cycle, there really has been less of a push towards a universal system, but that seems to always linger in the background. It's been a hard sell at the federal level if we look at the last 20 years, but it is an issue that's always kind of looming. 

PJM: What matters is that really important data isn't getting out there. An election is a good opportunity to make the evidence public. Again, if we say we want to be evidence based, well here's some evidence we need to be considering.

PS: Turning back to the data from the politics, is there a particular statistic that jumped out at you as the most under-reported, that made you wonder why Canadians don’t generally know it?

PJM: I think the big statistic that we have nearly 40 per cent of people, parents with kids under six, who aren't using a non-parental care. I think that's pretty sizable. I think their voices are not necessarily heard in this debate. Child care is care no matter who provides it. Even among those who do use care, many of them are using diverse care arrangements to meet their needs. And I don't hear their voices being represented in debates.

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