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From Vision to Reality: A Behind-the-Scenes Timeline of Canada's Universal Childcare System

(Minister Karina Gould in a Meeting)

Canada's Universal Childcare System

Canada’s newly implemented universal childcare system is being rolled out in all regions of the country at differing speeds. At the end of its implementation phase by 2026, Canada will have built a government-subsidized $10-a-day daycare system with over 250,000 newly built childcare spaces that are primarily non-profits. Due to the nature of such a large-scale policy project, there are indeed going to be some hiccups. But a mjaority reports and news sources show that all provinces within Canada are inching towards the $10-a-day goal and creating the necessary spaces required to meet the newly increased demand for such cheap daycare.

Once the program is fully implemented, other developed countries will study and reference Canada’s daycare system as a model example of both what to do and what not to do. On the surface, we already see that artificially reducing fees is effective at not only making childcare more accessible but provides significant savings for working parents. At the same time however, Canada’s Early Learning and Childcare (ELCC) sector is seeing a workforce crisis with record early childhood educators (ECEs) leaving the profession due to low pay, long hours, and stressful working conditions. In Nova Scotia, for example, the province has only been able to open a net positive of 28 childcare spaces over the course of the past 2 years because there are as many childcare spaces closing due to workforce issues as there are opening due to government subsidies.

The Childcare Story Behind the Scenes

Nevertheless, Canada will have a world-class childcare system that will be the envy of other countries. But why and how did the government choose to invest in such a policy? What made them do it and what exactly happened behind the scenes for the government to decide to initiate, legislate, and invest in childcare wholly?

The historic 2021 Canada-wide Early Learning and Childcare agreements stem from the foundations laid by agreements signed several years prior in 2017. The 2017 ELCC agreements were part of an effort by the newly elected Liberal Party to expand social services in Canada. In 2017, the federal government announced investments worth $7.5 billion over 11 years in Budget 2016 and Budget 2017 to bolster childcare accessibility by increasing the number of spaces by 40,000.

On June 2017 after the passage of Budget 2017 in March, these agreements were signed and the money was rolled out. By the time the new and improved agreements came around in 2021, the 2017 agreements had already achieved their goal of creating 40,000 new spaces. 

Childcare for Indigenous Peoples

At the same time, a separate ELCC framework targeted toward Indigenous Early Learning and Childcare was consulted on and in the works to specifically meet the needs of Indigenous communities. 

As the provinces and the federal government worked together to improve childcare infrastructure, the framework for Indigenous ELCC was completed and published in September of 2018. The framework provided “a guide for communities, program administrators, service providers, policymakers and governments to work towards achieving a shared vision that all Indigenous children have the opportunity to experience high-quality, culturally-strong ELCC.” In short, the purpose of the framework was to provide high-quality childcare to Indigenous communities that host unique cultural and linguistic needs specifically tailored to their people. Essentially, if Indigenous communities ought to have government-funded childcare, then it should be allocated while recognizing the unique needs of said community in its childcare services. According to the government and Indigenous people, Indigenous people deserve to have their own method of child-rearing and care to preserve their cultures and languages that were forcibly stripped of them decades ago.

The 2019 Literature Report 

In 2019, an expert panel on ELCC Data and Research was developed in early 2019 in order to facilitate better transparency, accountability, and data collection on achieving high-quality childcare. Later that year, a literature report on ‘Defining and Measuring the Quality of Early Learning and Child Care’ was published. This report discusses two important aspects of childcare: (1) the physical, mental, developmental, and social benefits to children with high-quality childcare and (2) identifying what exactly makes a childcare space high quality. This publication essentially served as a researched preamble to the implementation of an improved Canada-wide child-care system.

The Unofficial Offical Announcement of National Daycare

Seldom known to the public, a news release on September 25th, 2020 of the federal government’s commitment to a Canada-wide ELCC program was announced in Markham Ontario. The announcement was heeded by then Minister of Children, Families, and Social Development Ahmed Hussein. This was a follow-up announcement to the September 23rd, 2020 Throne Speech in Parliament confirming the government’s intention to implement a Canada-wide childcare system. These two announcements in combination confirmed that the government was working on something big for childcare. 

The government’s intention was further confirmed through dedicated funding in the 2020 Fall Economic Statement on Nov 30 of 2020. The government allocated $20 million over 5 years until 2026 with $4.3 million ongoing per year for a Federal Secretariat on ELCC. The government also further allocated $70 million for the existing Indigenous ELCC secretariat and $15 million ongoing. According to the government, the secretariat is tasked with bringing governments, experts, and stakeholders together to design and implement a new childcare system for Canada. The secretariat was essentially an administrative office to get the program rolling out among policy developers.

Prior to the initial announcement in September 2020 in the Throne Speech, internal consultation with government departments such as Employment and Social Development Canada, Women and Gender Equality Canada, Indigenous Services Canada, Finance Canada, Infrastructure Canada, and the Treasury Board had been ongoing for months to gain insight into how exactly the government should implement the policy. According to internal documents, the government had only used internal sources for policy and consultation insight, as the government already had the resources and personnel for the task. Thus, consulting with external parties would’ve been redundant at this point in the policymaking process.

Following the internal consultations ending in August 2020, Trudeau’s Throne Speech and the public announcement from Minister Hussein in September, the government likely continued to use internal government departments to help further develop the policy beginning in early 2020, past the announcements in September up until at least December 2020.

Enter Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Freeland

On December 7th 2020, an exclusive interview from ‘The Social’ with Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance Chrystia Freeland revealed that the government had an intention to roll out more support for childcare. In the interview, Minister Freeland hinted that the government was working towards implementing a Canada-wide childcare system. She also made it apparent that it was a strange tangle of faith in which her mother advocated for the policy 50 years ago as part of the Royal Commission on the Status of Women outlining the necessity of childcare services for women’s social and economic equality. From her rhetoric, Freeland made out her government’s commitment to childcare as grand and historic, mentioning that the pandemic severely affected employment levels for women and that a government response would be necessary to rekindle and exceed previous employment levels for women.

Furthermore, Freeland cites a national childcare system as a leading proponent for boosting Canada’s economy and improving income levels for the long term. From internal sources post-hawk, there was indeed consensus among business leaders, the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, provincial business organizations, and the Department of Finance agreeing that a national childcare program would have one of the “greatest positive impacts on economic growth, competitiveness and productivity”, according to the TorontoStar’s reporting with government officials. 

As Minister of Finance, Freeland was and is the most fiscally powerful person in the country, with the ability to spend on priorities she deems necessary. As it was, childcare was in Freeland’s sights and she - alongside her team - were eager to include it in the long-awaited 2021 Budget.

Budget 2021 and the Media Preamble

While political analysts and news media knew that investments in childcare were coming, the scope of the policy was not yet known to the public. In between Freeland's interview December of 2020 and the actual release of Budget 2021 in April 2021, government departments like ESDC and the Department of Finance were likely working closely together to hash out the final fiscal framework of the program before the April deadline. In order to avoid any provincial backlash, the federal government had to be loose in spending levels to ensure provincial buy-in for the program. But not too loose as to unsustainably grow Canada’s debt levels or alarm fiscally cautious Liberal voters. As a result, the federal government was hard at work to ensure the funding was adequate on a national basis, matched with what the provinces already funded for childcare services, and was not too costly to Canada’s already growing debt.

It was only until at least early April of 2021 did major news media organizations publish about Budget 2021’s policy initiative on childcare. These stories were published as the budget neared with officials within the government working closely with news media. Even so, the government kept a tight lid on the full scope of the childcare program and it was only until the full Budget was released on April 19th of 2021 did the public have a full understanding of the program. A historic $30 billion 5-year investment to lower daycare fees to $10 a day and create 250,000 new non-profit childcare spaces by 2026 with $9 billion ongoing permanently to upkeep the program.

2023: The Progress So Far 

As of mid-2023, the federal and provincial governments have spent the last 2 years in making much progress to improve childcare affordability and accessibility. Bilateral agreements between the provinces and federal government have been signed as of 2021, with new spaces being built right now all while fees go down. And while the sector goes through a workforce retention crisis muddled with low pay, strenuous working conditions, and increasing pressure to deliver higher-quality care, the sector is seeing more attention and support from governments than ever before.

Just recently, the federal government announced $625 million towards building more non-profit childcare spaces as demand for the program increases. The government has also announced separate complementary funding grants with provinces like Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and Ontario as a means to support the building of new childcare spaces. Provinces themselves are taking the initiative as well with Ontario planning to build an extra 2900 spaces in Ottawa. Moreover, out of the major provinces, British Columbia is making a distinguished effort to expand access to $10 childcare in their rural and urban centres as fast as possible. Thus at all levels of government, there is consensus and collaboration to improve childcare services for all Canadians. 

More than that, the federal government has confirmed its intention and responsibility to fund and support a national childcare system through systemic legislation for the long term (Bill C-35). On top of commitment from provinces and the federal government to improve access, quality, and affordability; Bill C-35, "An Act respecting early learning and child care in Canada", signals yet another addition to Canada’s plethora of social programs like healthcare, education, and pensions, among others. For Canadians, this is a permanent institutional change, with universal childcare being a new reality for Canadian families and children.

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