Child Care: Why Canada can’t afford to pander to the deep

Saturday’s announcement by Ontario Premier Doug Ford and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on child care spaces came as a relief, but it should come as no surprise. Each of them wants a policy that will receive majority support in their own country, and they have eagerly complied. Not only are they not likely to emerge victorious, they aren’t likely to come away with any practical advantages in governing. They’re actually doing each other more harm than good.

If Ford comes out of this experience any better than he went in, it will have been a near-miracle. His early weeks in office left him looking like he might be incapable of governing, parroting some of the most xenophobic rhetoric I have ever heard in politics, although he did declare “I don’t like immigration, and I don’t like refugees.” His view of child care is dangerous, too, as are some of his earlier comments.

He called for the federal government to end the child care transfer to his province and to bar any transfer to help Quebec open centres that would compete with provincial subsidies. If there was even a chance he would deliver, I would have waited in vain. His unwillingness to partner with the Trudeau government and open the doors to facilities in which private providers would compete for parents’ business would have fallen as a giant middle finger. But it seems clear that when making his case for adopting the “right” child care policy, Ford is talking about not a specific facility or type of child care but rather the specific ratio of government subsidies to private pay.

Since Ford wants government’s to subsidize businesses — and I’m not sure that not doing so will leave him more open to immigrants — he is also willing to bully Quebec to end its subsidies. Quebec holds a grudge, perhaps, since Ontario stopped short of allowing provincial subsidies for universities to compete with tuition fees. Ontario’s system was always focused more on access for Quebecers than access for Ontarians. The private providers in Quebec’s child care system provide Quebecers with preferential quality and price standards for public subsidy in both Quebec and Ontario. Ford would no doubt like to replicate Quebec’s best practices in Ontario. His aim isn’t more provinces joining him, but more provinces hitting him with tariffs and counter-tariffs on products made in Canada.

By choosing a policy that is a direct policy attack on his fellow countryman, Trudeau has strengthened Ford’s hand. Ford is not likely to make concessions that benefit Trudeau, and Trump won’t hesitate to pull Canada’s tariff placements if he feels Trudeau is making concessions. The best he can hope for is to fill the kid-care spaces that already exist by increasing the budgets available in schools. This means hiring teachers to go in with the 10,000 new child care spaces Ford has promised in Ontario, or taking money from school budgets. The most Ford can do is to expand wait lists and make it harder for everyone else to get into an approved centre. That’s hard on teachers, who want the money for the jobs they want. It’s not much of a policy victory for Ford. What happened in Ottawa is that they decided that Ford was having this same success in his country, and now he can claim, albeit disingenuously, that his vision for child care is winning, too.

Child care has become so much about national sovereignty and matching the best practices to make the best use of our resources — in short, about pointing to the country’s role as a national leader, with a set of guiding principles. It’s not about comparing outcomes or credit for better performance. Child care is not the smartest way to spend federal money. At the same time, it’s hard to make the case that it’s not more important than anything else. The cost of child care has steadily risen at a rate higher than inflation, and recent studies have shown that more than half of Ontario families have been forced to leave the child care system at least once in the past three years. That means more families will choose not to be parents for health reasons, because they can’t afford the care. More people will leave the work force, never to return. The estimated cost of childcare — just over $17,000 a year per child — is a fairly conservative price for the limited time that children are in childcare. While none of this will be solved if people can’t afford child care, we certainly can’t afford to let the worst policy in any country in the world to perpetuate its importance.

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