Universal child care and its possibilities in Canada

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Episode 57

Read the full transcript of our episode with Morna Ballantyne on the prospect of universal childcare in Canada below.


Hi, I’m Ron Spreeuwenberg, co-founder and CEO of HiMama. Welcome to our podcast about all things “early-childhood education”.

Preschool, childcare, daycare, early-childhood education. Whatever you prefer to call it – we prefer early-childhood education – it’s a sector that is getting a lot of attention at the provincial and federal levels here in Canada. The sector has a longstanding history of being fragmented and has lacked a unified voice. As a result support and resources for the field aren’t consistent across the country. Understanding the history of early-childhood education brings more context into why advocacy is so important, not just for individuals working within the sector but also for stakeholders in a broader sense: parents, employers and society at large. Canada has a vision for universal childcare, and we have Morna Ballantyne, executive director of the Child Care Advocacy Association of Canada on the show to tell us more about it.

Morna, welcome to the Preschool Podcast.


Thank you, very nice to be here.


It’s great to have you on the show. You’re the executive director of Child Care Advocacy Association of Canada. Let’s start off just learning a little bit more about what that association is and what you stand for.


Sure. So the Child Care Advocacy Association of Canada was founded in 1982, following a very large national conference on childcare that took place in Winnipeg to discuss what people then called the Crisis of Child Care in Canada. And the crisis took the form of very limited access, high costs, the childcare sector was very poorly supported by government policy and through government funding. So people came together from the childcare sector, but also parents with young children, employers, policy makers, policy experts, academia from across Canada, and really from diverse communities to talk about that crisis and figure out what to do.

And out of that conference, a decision was made to form an advocacy organization, an organization that would have its first priority trying to convince all levels of government – local government, provincial and territorial governments, and the federal government in Canada – to make the building of a really high-quality, universally accessible childcare system, to build it and make it a reality for all families and children in the country. We’ve been doing that ever since 1982, with ups and downs.


As always, as we all experience ups and downs. Question for you: Why do you think 1982? Was there something happening at that time. Why not earlier? Why not later?


That’s a really good question. I think in the early 1980’s a lot of discussion was happening on policy issues connected to one big issue with women’s equality, very much on the agenda. In 1975 we had the Royal Commission on the Status of Women federal initiative. That was in Canada, but internationally of course in the 70’s it was a decade of activism and mobilization for women’s equality rights. And one of the big issues that arose through discussions around the status of women was the issue of children and the fact that responsibility for the care – particularly of young children – fell at that time, and continues to fall largely on women. And that women because they didn’t have the support – and still don’t have the support you know for their role as mothers – ended up paying a very high price, particularly economically and particularly with respect to their ability to enter and stay in the paid workforce.

So that was, I think, a big reason why childcare was emerging as an issue in Canada. And it’s also one of the reasons that back in the early 80’s the childcare movement was almost synonymous with what we would call the women’s movement. And certainly most of the activists within the movement were women.

But over the 80’s and 90’s there’s been some real shifts in how the issue of childcare is positioned. It’s still very much positioned as an issue related to women’s economic equality, but not only. We now see the need for accessible, affordable, high-quality childcare services as something not just important to women, not just important to parents, but really, really important to children and their well being. So I think that’s been a big shift over time. But I think that that’s kind of what was one of the big reasons. Certainly that’s how I got involved with the issue of childcare, was actually before I had children. I got really involved once I had children. But even before then, because I was involved in a number of women’s equality rights groups I became very aware of childcare as an issue.


That’s interesting history and I would agree with a lot of the changes of how it sort of evolved since 1982 to today, about it being also a lot more revolved around the need for children to have access to quality childcare and early-childhood education. So that’s great to see that progress.

Another question for you, sort of about the roots of Child Care Advocacy Association of Canada: Why do you think that this type of association or organization didn’t exist before? Who stood up for early-childhood education and childcare before 1982, in Canada?


I really don’t know the answer to that question. I think that at the time that the Association was founded we really were filling a big hole, a big gap. As I said I think a number of women’s equality groups were taking on the issue of childcare, certainly those who worked within the sector were crying out for attention: the attention of governments and the attention of community to be more supportive of the services that they were providing. But there’s been a longstanding issue with the childcare sector of it being pretty fragmented. And so the extent to which the organization [was] advocating for childcare, it tended to be people directly employed in in the provision of childcare in one way or the other.

And one of the things that the Child Care Advocacy Association tries to do is really sort of widen the circle of people who take an interest in childcare and provide an avenue for advocacy beyond the childcare sector itself. We reach out to organizations that would not see themselves primarily as childcare advocates but who come to understand the importance of childcare for the wide importance of the issue. Anti-poverty groups, for example; trade union people who represent employees; employer organizations; municipal governments. That’s really what we’re trying to do as a broad association, is getting all these voices together.


I think that’s excellent, and something that the early-childhood education community should continue to proceed with: getting other stakeholders involved to care about early-childhood education and access to quality childcare, because just as the early-childhood education community themselves we can we can do so much, and we definitely need to lead the effort I think. But there’s other stakeholders that are impacted that can help with that voice. So I think that’s really a great strategy and a great thing to be doing.

Now one thing that you mentioned, and also a part of the commitment of Child Care Advocacy Association of Canada is promoting a shared vision of a universal childcare system. And some people may have heard this word; it’s been in the news a lot, in Canada especially. But I would like for our listeners to learn a little bit more about what that is and how you would define universal childcare. Maybe we can start there?


Sure. My definition of is pretty straightforward: For me, what a universal system of childcare [is], is a system that ensures that every family who needs childcare, who wants childcare services, have access to them regardless of where they live, regardless of their own economic family circumstances and regardless of whether they are in the paid workforce or outside of the paid workforce. That a universal childcare system is one available to all, and one that provides a comprehensive range of services.

So often when people hear the term “childcare” they think about childcare centers; they think about a particular location, and they often think about a service that is provided to older children who are 18 months and older. And they think often bricks and mortar. And we have a much broader view of childcare. First of all we like to refer to early-childhood education as childcare. We think that they’re an important part of childcare services, is the educational development of children. And we like to see childcare as being something that takes a holistic approach to the well being of the child and also to the family.

But essentially it’s a system that makes comprehensive childcare services available and affordable to all families. In a very similar way that we talk – at least in Canada – about our universal primary and secondary education system, and we often in Canada refer to our health care system as being universal. So anybody who requires health care services in Canada has access to health care services. The range of access is sometimes not as great as we might like. But essentially if you need a doctor in this country you have a right to see a doctor and get medical attention, and also medical attention in a hospital, for example. So we see universal childcare in the same way.

And what that means is, the other thing we talk a lot about is that right now we don’t actually have a childcare system in Canada. We have multiple systems, I guess you could call them, or multiple ways of providing access to childcare. But really childcare for the most part in Canada – particularly outside of Quebec – is what we describe as a market based model system of delivery. So and what we mean by that is that the way childcare is delivered and set up, when people decide or choose to offer the service, there’s not a lot of government planning that goes into it. And there’s some regulation, for sure: governments say what can or can’t happen in a childcare facility, and governments will define what a childcare facility is. But other than that it’s pretty much left up to the marketplace to decide where, when and how childcare services will be organized.

And what we would like to see is childcare being seen as a public service, something that is fully funded by government through public funding and organized in such a way that there’s a very high quality of care provided. And that of course means that staff – the educators and other staff who are involved in the provision of childcare – are properly compensated, and certainly compensated in a way that recognizes the very high value of work performed and the skills that are required to provide really good, quality service. So we want all of those pieces in place.

And some people think what we say by “universal childcare system” is a free system that parents shouldn’t have to pay. Well, as they say, there’s really no such thing as “free”. First of all when we talk about public support, public governments get their funding from citizens through a taxation system. So obviously it would never be free in that respect. We also think that there is probably a role, [that] parents could contribute and should contribute towards the cost of childcare. But we want that cost to be geared to income, and we want it to be affordable. So what we would want to see is a cap on parent fees, and we want them to be set at an appropriate level.

But what we also want to get away from is that a childcare provider is completely dependent on parent fees to be able to provide service and essentially to be able to survive. That’s a long answer.


But it’s a very descriptive answer. And it sounds like this would be a big shift from this market-based model that you’re describing. [Are] there case studies of other countries or perhaps smaller jurisdictions within Canada where childcare has been implemented as more like a public service, as you describe it, on us more a universal model, and that’s been done effectively?


Well, in Canada we have some pieces in place, maybe a few building blocks to develop the kind of system that I’m describing. There is nowhere that it is offered solely as a public service. So for example, in the province of Quebec since the 90’s as part of a provincial family policy initiative the big shift was made from relying completely on the market for the provision of childcare services. And instead what the government did is created what is called “un Réseau de Petite enfance” [early childhood network]. So they establish essentially a recognized sector made up of childcare centers and family-based providers. And so those centers, and the family-based care that is provided through those centers, are funded directly by the provincial government. And also the provincial government established a flat fee originally, and then it moved more recently to a sliding scale fee based on income, so that in Quebec families do have the right and do have access to publicly funded childcare.

Now, there’s been some changes in Quebec recently that have started to erode that system, so it’s no longer kind of been the model as it is now that we would necessarily want to replicate across the country. Because what the provincial government did – the provincial Liberal government, the last number of years – they have instituted, and they’ve cut back, first of all, on the public funding to what’s referred to often as a subsidized sector. But it’s a little bit different than what other people in the rest of Canada understand by “subsidy”. But they cut back essentially in how much money the government was giving to these sectors and instead put money towards a tax credit for those families who were accessing for-profit, private childcare, outside of what we call this “Réseau”.

And so what we’ve seen is a big expansion in the for-profit sector, and some shrinking in the other sector in recent years. And then of course in Manitoba and P.E.I., like in Quebec, we have caps on fees. There’s a set parent fee scale, so that that’s helpful; makes it more affordable in those two provinces. And then of course around the world there’s all kinds of examples where childcare is actually delivered as a public service.


So it sounds like there is some challenges in successful implementation and execution, just because there are so many stakeholders and so many moving pieces…?


Yes, absolutely. It’s a really complicated area of policy and it is very difficult I think to try to shift people’s thinking from what childcare is now to what it could be. Part of what makes it difficult when we advocate for childcare is, unfortunately, really, still only one in four children aged under five actually have a space in a licensed, regulated childcare facility, either center-based or family home childcare. And so for a lot of families they don’t have anything; they don’t even understand the concept of licensed, regulated, high quality childcare. So it’s a difficult starting place for us to be able to advocate and get public support for a very different vision, although there is a lot of public support, I should say, for it.


An increasing amount, it seems like, at least in Ontario where we are.

So we have to wrap things up, unfortunately; we’re running out of time. Any parting thoughts to our listeners who are working in childcare and early-childhood education on this subject matter?


Well, I just want to say I’m feeling incredibly encouraged. It is a big shift, as you say. There are a lot of problems with respect to the provision of childcare, how it’s funded, how it’s accessed, the cost of childcare… big, big challenges for those working in the childcare sector, with respect to everything from recruiting – especially young early-childhood educators – into the field, and then of course retaining them. But I really feel that in Canada we are the just on the cusp of some big change. I think the recent announcement by the interior government, putting forward a five-year plan to double the number of regulated spaces – a promise to start addressing workforce challenges and affordability challenges – is really encouraging.

The fact that the NDP in British Columbia is likely to become the next provincial government after what will likely be the defeat of the Liberal government in a non-confidence motion, the B.C NDP has committed to building a universally accessible system. In Quebec just this week we’ve seen the introduction of legislation that focuses on improving the quality of early-childhood education in that province. And we saw recently the signing of the federal provincial territorial agreement on early learning and childcare, and it’s the first agreement of that kind that we’ve seen since 2005 when Paul Martin was the prime minister of Canada.

So these are really encouraging signs, and just a thought that we hear and read about childcare in the media in Canada almost every day now. And I think that the sector, I think childcare advocates and those working with them in the childcare sector are working very, very closely together, and also working with governments. And governments are paying attention for sometimes the right reasons, sometimes the wrong reasons. But nevertheless they’re paying attention. So I just hope everybody like me who is listening to the podcast – certainly those in Canada – are feeling encouraged as I am. I really think that we’re going to make big advances in the next three to five years.


Cool. Yeah, I mean, there’s certainly a lot of activity happening right now, a lot of conversation, discussion and debate about it, which is always a good thing. And so I agree – let’s see where this thing goes. And it’s interesting to see all the progress that’s happening in various provinces across the country. And I’ve certainly learned a lot through this conversation about universal childcare and what’s happening in Canada.

If I’m listening to this podcast right now and I want to learn a little bit more about Child Care Advocacy Association of Canada, universal child care or maybe I even want to get involved in some of the advocacy, where would I go to get more information?


I’m so glad you asked that question, because we have a good initiative underway which is an online initiative. We’ve set up a website which is called www.ChildCareForAll.ca. And if your listeners go onto that site they can sign up in support of what we’re trying to achieve in this country, and they can also sign up to get on our mailing list so that we can be in touch with all kinds of information as developments occur. So we’re trying to sign up 150,000 supporters over the next two years. So I hope your listeners are going to jump right in and get on their devices and their computers, go to that website and sign up so that we can stay in touch.


Wonderful. Thanks so much, Morna, for coming on the show. It’s really great to learn more about universal childcare, what that means, what some of the challenges are, the progress that we’ve seen so far. And again, that’s www.ChildCareForAll.ca, for those of you that want to go to sign up and support this cause and learn more about what’s happening with universal childcare in Canada. Thanks so much, Morna.


Thank you.

Ron Spreeuwenberg

Ron is the Co-Founder & CEO of HiMama, where he leads all aspects of a social purpose business that helps early childhood educators improve learning outcomes for children.