5 Reasons Canada Should Have a National Child Care Program

By Lara Zink and Katie Squires-Thompson | May 04, 2021

National child care is our pathway out of gender inequality if built on equity. It’s the largest line item in the 2021 Federal Budget, which proposes $30 billion over five years to develop a national child care program. 

To some, it seems like a tremendous amount of money. To others, it pales in comparison to the collective costs of unpaid work and sacrifices women have been shouldering in memorable history. 

Affordable, accessible and high-quality child care is necessary and long-overdue infrastructure to achieve gender equality and equity. Childcare programs have a proven track record: they’ve been successfully implemented in Quebec and the Nordic countries who are leaders in gender equity. But such a program is not without it’s complications. 

Here are 5 things to consider: 

1. Child care is not just a “women’s” or parents issue. 

It’s easy to think narrowly of childcare as a service for women and working parents. While these groups are obvious beneficiaries, the beneficiaries are much broader: children get equal access to quality early education and socialization. Employers benefit from a larger and more diverse talent pool and more engaged, productive and available employees. Families, partnerships, our country’s economy, even men’s employment rates benefit as a result of investing in care infrastructure.

2. The economic case for national child care is incredibly strong. 

The childcare plan is predicted to increase Canada’s GDP by 1.2 per cent, generating $17 - $29 billion in annual government revenues, rapidly recuperating expenses. A 2017 report by the Conference Board of Canada showed that every $1 spent on child care results in $6 of economic benefit down the road. 

Former Bank of Canada Governor Stephen Poloz concluded that increasing the workforce participation rate of prime-age women in Canada to levels comparable to Quebec would add almost 300,000 people to our country's workforce. Universal, affordable childcare has a very high social and financial return on investment, if properly implemented.

3. We can learn from Quebec and Sweden. 

Quebec has a twenty-year old universal, affordable child-care system, initiated in response to declining birth rates. The result: an increase in women’s participation in the labour market by more than 25%, as well as an increased birth rate. By 2016, the participation rate of women was 81% in Quebec, compared with 75% in Ontario.

Sweden’s care system was also economically motivated, born out of a labour shortage in the 1960s that necessitated women’s full participation in the workforce. Sweden’s child care fees reflect the parent’s income and number of children. This, along with other family policies including year-long parental leaves and monthly child allowances, is one of the many ingredients that earns Sweden the badge of one of the world’s most gender equal countries. While both programs have yielded many positive outcomes, this does not mean that care programs are without risks or carry unintended negative consequences. Quebec and Sweden offer initial working models, and Canada’s national program should be iterative. 

4. The question becomes not whether Canada should offer childcare, but how it should be designed and delivered.  

We know that work schedules, family structures and needs vary widely, therefore Canada needs a diversity of care models that reflect how parents work. An equitable design would reflect the needs of a variety of groups, from freelancers, contract and shift workers, to low-income families, or those who want to be primary caregivers but need ad-hoc drop-in care for their children. Different groups need different levels of support. Whatever system is developed, it should be built on the principles of equity. 

5. Five years is a long time to wait. We need childcare now and Canadian employers can lead the charge. 

On one hand, Canadian families have been waiting for national, universal child care for decades. What’s another five years? A lack of affordable child-care means perpetuating the cycle of gender inequity and inequality. The pandemic has turned the clocks back three decades in terms of women’s participation in the workforce, and 12 times as many mothers as fathers have left their jobs to care for kids. Our workforce of women has suffered serious damage, from job loss, to stagnation in advancement, to deskilling - all of which has potentially severe long-term implications. We need solutions and structures now in order to properly recover. 

Companies and employers who are serious about gender equality, the health of their workforce, and their bottom lines for that matter, have an opportunity to contribute and benefit by providing interim and long-term solutions that compliment the government model. Take for example how companies supplement our national health care system with employee benefits plans. 

A national child care program is a step in the right direction. We have a lot to gain, and a lot to potentially lose, and we must move swiftly and smartly.

What is your reaction to the fact that the 61st session of the Commission on the Status of Women will be chaired by a man?