Canada’s Budget 2021 is focused on pandemic recovery, including the intention to develop a country-wide system of early learning and child care. The convergence of COVID-19, a finance minister who is herself a working mother, and decades of research and advocacy created a unique moment for historic public spending on young children.
The $30 billion over 5 years, with $ 9.2 billion annually going forward, was more than stakeholders expected. The amount pales compared to the Biden child care plan, but Canada´s population is about one-tenth that of the U.S. The federal addition to current spending by provinces and territories is enough to open access to all preschool-age children, while setting parent fees at about $10/day and reasonably compensating educators. Canadian parents are already eligible for 18 months of paid maternity and parental leave, reducing demand for infant care.
The budget announces money and aspirations but not implementation details. Next steps are dependent on negotiations with 13 provinces and territories as well as separate agreements with Canada’s First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples. Questions are circulating about how new funding will make it to lower levels of government and ultimately benefit children and their families. Kerry McCuaig, a fellow in early childhood policy at the University of Toronto, prepared a budget Explainer outlining what is known to date.
The Canadian government’s goals are inspired by Quebec’s 20 year experience with low cost child care. Quebec uses two avenues to provide affordable care: direct funding for its publicly-managed centres de la petit enfance (Centres for little children); and, generous tax credits to reimburse parents using private centres. Over the years, private centres gained a well-deserved reputation for poor quality. Learning from Quebec, Ottawa has ruled out tax measures or direct payments to parents and will restrict funding for expansion to non-profit and public providers. These provisions have already raised the hackles of some conservative provincial premiers.
The challenge ahead is to ensure program quality develops in tandem with the growth of spaces and more affordable parent fees. Advocates, who have seen past promises of universal child care dematerialize during intergovernmental bargaining, remain cautiously optimistic. Given the pandemic-induced damage to the economy, fears for the delayed development of a generation of children, and the need to incent mothers back into the workforce, there is a broad public consensus that the time for high-quality early learning and child care is now.