What Canada’s Universal Child Care System Could Mean for Child Care Providers

The federal government committed to a number of social programs in the throne speech on September 23, 2020, among them the promise to make “significant, long-term investments in a Canada-wide, early-learning and child care system.” Aimed at helping women who have been disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, the program would increase access to “affordable, inclusive, and high-quality child care” to enable more women to return to the workforce.

Gov. Gen. Julie Payette noted that it had been almost 50 years since the Royal Commission on the Status of Women found that child care was essential for women’s social and economic equality, and that they cannot allow the pandemic to “roll back the clock” on women’s participation in the workforce. Payette said that child care will be crucial to a full economic recovery; “Canada cannot succeed if half of the population is held back.”

Past Promises of a Universal Child Care System

Over the past five decades, numerous governments have made similar promises of a publicly funded universal child care system. The Liberals’ 1993 Red Book included a commitment to improve and expand child care at the national level, yet their promise was not fulfilled.

A national child care program came closest to reality 11 years later with Paul Martin, but did not come to fruition after the Conservatives dismantled the program in 2005. In 2011 during his campaign, Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff revived the program, but again was unable to fulfill the promise as the Conservatives remained in power. Four years later in 2015, the New Democrats made a “$15-a-day daycare campaign pledge” but failed to win the election.

Long-time advocates for a national child care program are more hopeful with the commitment made by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Martha Friendly, founder and executive director of the Childcare Resource and Research Unit noted that although governments have made unfulfilled promises on child care before, she “could not remember a commitment as strong as what was delivered Wednesday.”

“Childcare advocates are used to hearing promises of universal childcare from the federal government. I’m underwhelmed by the throne speech, at best,” Amanda Munday, Founder and CEO of The Workaround, a co-working space for working parents that offers onsite childcare, tells us. “Childcare, availability, affordability, and access to early education is in deep crisis. COVID-19 has only exacerbated what was and has been a problem for many years. Yes, there is a sense of accomplishment and hope in hearing a national childcare program mentioned briefly in the Throne Speech, however, what I need to hear as a parent and a childcare business owner is – what does this roll-out entail? When? How much will it cost and who will it apply to? We know that the government has traditionally excluded private childcare programs from government subsidies and funding, which may make the roll out less accessible than it purports to be.”

What Can We Learn From Quebec’s Subsidized Child care System

While it does have its own challenges, the Quebec system could be used as a model for crafting the proposed Canada-wide, early-learning and child care program. Quebec implemented the first province-wide subsidized childcare program in 1997. At the time, families in the province were guaranteed a spot in a child care center offering high-quality care for as little as $5 a day, regardless of the family’s income. In 2014, fees were adjusted with the introduction of a sliding scale that was tied to family income. As of 2018, the fee ranged from about $8 per day up to $22 per day.

When it began over 20 years ago, the program was centered around the idea that if the government helped make child care accessible and affordable, it would:

  • Increase the number of women in the workforce.
  • Improve childhood development and social skills.
  • Raise revenue for the government through increased payroll taxes.

Canada’s leading expert in the economics of subsidized child care, economist Pierre Fortin, has stated that the program has been successful in increasing cost efficiency as well as increasing the participation of women in the workforce. In fact, Quebec has seen the rate of women age 26 to 44 in the workforce reach 85 percent, the highest in the world. Fortin explains that the program has brought about increased government savings as a result of taxation, taxes back into economies in social benefits, and fewer families depending on social benefits.

A challenge that Quebec has faced over the years is having enough government-subsidized childcare spots available for every parent who wants one. To make up the difference, the province has had to turn to private centers. Families in the subsidized programs pay a small amount out of pocket (ranging from $8-$21 a day); families in private facilities must pay the entire amount up front, and then receive a tax rebate. Unfortunately this mix of public-private centers has resulted in a disparity of quality, as the private centers aren’t subject to the same level of government regulations as the subsidized ones. As a result, the publicly funded centers are the most popular ones, and the most difficult to get into, with families having to apply through a centralized lottery system.

Next Steps for the Proposed National Childcare System

Although Gov. Gen. Julie Payette did not outline specific details of how they would move forward with the proposed Canada-wide, early-learning and child care system, she did comment that the government wants to, “build on previous investments … and work with all provinces and territories to ensure that high-quality care is accessible to all.”  It was unclear exactly how the government would make the promised system a reality, however there were suggestions that it may be based on Quebec’s subsidized model.

Want to know what childcare providers think about a potential universal childcare program? See the results from our universal childcare survey!

Stephanie Ferguson

Stephanie Ferguson has over 10 years of diverse marketing and communications experience in the fields of early education and brand management. She strives to build a connection with readers by creating relevant content that delivers value and insight. Stephanie has an Honours BBA from Wilfrid Laurier University.


  • Lisa says:

    Having worked in the Child care field my entire life I will say that if the government simply allowed private centers to hold service contracts for subsidized spaces then the private centers would be subject to the same level of government regulations and therefor would be just as high quality. This would also force the private sector to invest profits back into their centers to ensure that they are meeting quality standards. I have been a supervisor at a center that is Private but has subsidy spaces as they were grandfathered in and I have worked as the supervisor of a newer private center without subsidized spaces. I will say that the difference is obvious and it seems clear to me that this would be a simple solution to one of the factors that is holding back the quality of child care in Ontario.

  • Actually I would like an even broader plan – to fund children directly and let parents pay the childcare centre, dayhome, as they need or choose, or to subsidize care at home by sitter, nanny or grandma or mom or dad. It is wonderful that government is finally noticing kids matter but we also must make them realize that care of a child is work, and whoever does it is a member of the labor force and vital to the economy. The third wave of women’s rights dares to say that women have always worked- in or out of the home – and the win win is for money to go to any who parent, so they can afford the type of care they want for their child. In that way a sick or handicapped child or a child on vacation may not be at a childcare centre but they still are not only getting care but costing money. We need money that flows with the child. This also would enable parents to always have the funds to pay for the childcare centre if that is their choice. http://www.equalityandcaregiving.org