OTTAWA – The new child-care deal the Liberal government has signed with most provinces might not be a universal program, but Families Minister Jean-Yves Duclos said it could make way for one later down the road.
“It’s an aspiration and long-term vision that is coherent with universality,” Duclos said Monday after he signed a multilateral agreement with the provinces and territories, except Quebec, which decided not to join, and British Columbia, which is still working through the impact of its recent election.
The Liberal government spent more than a year negotiating the deal — called the Multilateral Early Learning and Child Care Framework — to set out the parameters for billions in new child care spending unveiled in the 2017 budget: quality, accessibility, affordability, flexibility and inclusivity.
Many child-care advocates, who have long pushed for a national daycare program modeled after the one that Quebec has had since 1997 — where every family, no matter their income, is eligible for some form of subsidized space — have pointed out that universality was missing from the list.
Don Giesbrecht, CEO of the Canadian Child Care Federation, said he wants to see a move towards child care being affordable and accessible for everyone, because the need extends beyond vulnerable populations.
“Accessing quality child care is an issue that affects families of all types and across all socio-economic statuses,” he said.
Instead, the Liberal government chose to focus on inclusivity, targeting investments in areas they think will have the most impact, such as by increasing labour force participation among single mothers, but Duclos said that can be a step along the way.
“More inclusive child care eventually means universal child care,” he said in an interview. “However, to get there, we need to proceed by steps.”
Duclos said if and when universal daycare programs do come along, it will likely not be all at once, as the recognition that each province and territory is dealing with a different set of circumstances was key to getting them on board.
Quebec already has it, which is one reason the province decided not to join the framework, although it supports the general principles and is expected to reach a deal with the federal government to get its share of the money.
Ontario, which has the highest day-care fees in the country, announced last week that it would work towards a universal system.
“It’s a good sign that other provinces want to have a system like this, because at the end of the day it’s very good for the economy,” said Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard.
The framework is meant to pave the way for separate, bilateral agreements to be hammered out with the provinces and territories over the next few months, which will allow a total of $1.2 billion to flow into their coffers over the next three years.
That is part of the $7.5 billion the Liberals have promised to spend on child care over 11 years, beginning with $500 million this year and increasing to $870 million annually by 2026 in order to fund spaces — or improvements — in provinces and territories.
That also includes funding for indigenous child care both on and off-reserve.
As The Canadian Press reported last week, the framework stipulates that any new federal funding for child care cannot be used to displace existing money, meaning that it must be put towards creating new subsidized spaces, improving quality or other areas that fall within the guiding principles.
The Liberal government also wants the provinces and territories to prioritize investments in regulated child care for children under six.
Still, Duclos stressed the government will make flexibility a priority for the bilateral agreements, as provinces and territories will be able to choose which specific indicators they want to focus on in order to meet their needs.
The framework outlined a few of the options that could work their way into the bilateral agreements, such as making non-traditional options such as daycares with flexible or irregular hours more available, or increasing the number of children from diverse populations, such as recent immigrants and refugees, who have access to programs geared to their needs.
Duclos said that if a province decides to emphasize qualifications and training for the child-care workforce, for example, it would benefit everyone.
“We’ve already been signalled that in some provinces, there will be investments that will benefit middle-class Canadians, and not only lower-income Canadians,” he said.
The Liberal government has set aside $95 million of its investment to go towards improving data on day care, which Duclos said could lead to more specific goals when it comes time to renewing the agreements in 2020, as each province has to report annually on its progress.
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