Canadian Press/Jeff McIntosh

“Tin-Pot Childcare” Lives On?

Alberta falls short of the national vision

By Tom Langford

During the second World War, Canada had a national daycare program to facilitate the participation of women with young children in a labour market emptied out by military service and the disruption of immigrant flows. However, the Wartime Day Nurseries program was abandoned by Prime Minister Mackenzie King’s federal government after the end of the war in 1945. For the ensuing 76 years, there was no national program for childcare. Provinces and territories built a patchwork of services and regulatory regimes that were often inadequate. But the page turned in 2021.

Canada now has its second national daycare program, officially termed the Canada-wide Early Learning and Childcare (ELCC) system. Announced in the April 2021 budget, the federal government’s plan far exceeds what even the most hopeful advocates had been promoting as recently as 2020: it promises $30-billion in new federal investments between 2021 and 2026 and thereafter over $8-billion yearly in new federal support.

The objectives are affordability, universality, availability, quality and inclusivity.

It is little wonder, therefore, that seven provinces plus the Yukon signed on to the new ELCC system in the summer of 2021, as bilateral agreement after bilateral agreement was announced in rapid succession. Coming to a quick agreement was incentivized by the federal government’s commitment to start the flow of funds within 60 days of getting a signature. With the exception of Quebec (more on this later), the agreements consistently specified the pan-Canadian objectives behind federal investments in ELCC: affordability, universality, availability (i.e., enough spaces), high quality and inclusivity/equity. The agreements allow a provincial or territorial government to elaborate its own plan for addressing these objectives, taking into account local conditions and needs.

Make no mistake, however: This has been a top-down approach to program development. Justin Trudeau’s government holds the purse strings and simultaneously is the final arbiter of whether an action plan aligns with its ELCC objectives. The birth of $10-a-day childcare, therefore, is being directed in much the same way as Liberal federal governments in the 1950s and 1960s took the lead in establishing universal access to healthcare.

During the federal election campaign in the late summer of 2021, the Conservative Party promised to tear up the newly signed agreements and kibosh the nascent ELCC system. But on September 20, 2021, the Conservatives lost the election, thereby giving universal, $10-a-day childcare a window of opportunity to grow and become part of the fabric of Canadian society.

At the heart of the new national program are five principles. The first is affordability—the goal is to cut in half the average fee for regulated, full-time care of young children by the end of 2022 and further lower it to $10 a day by 2026. Second is universality—the plan envisions “that all families in Canada have access to high-quality, affordable, flexible and inclusive early learning and childcare no matter where they live.” This means that although enrollment of a young child in an ELCC space will be optional, the federal government’s ambitious plan is to grow the supply of $10-a-day spaces to meet the demand from sea to sea to sea. Third is availability (really, an antecedent principle to universality): each bilateral agreement specifies a provincial or territorial government’s targets for increasing the number of ELCC spaces. The fourth principle is high-quality ELCC rather than custodial (just-keeping-the-kids-safe) daycare. To support this principle the federal government is insisting that new spaces in daycare centres be operated by public bodies or not-for-profits, and that various steps to improve quality be taken such as increasing training requirements for workers and establishing wage grids “to support the attraction and retention of early childhood educators.” Fifth is inclusivity/equity. The new ELCC system is to be constructed so that vulnerable children, children with disabilities and those from diverse communities such as new immigrants will have spaces equal to or greater than their share of the eligible population of children. Furthermore, the federal government intends to work with “Indigenous partners,” with $2.5-billion of the $30-billion total investment directed to developing “high-quality, culturally appropriate childcare for Indigenous children guided by Indigenous priorities.”

Alberta was one of the three Conservative provincial governments that declined to sign bilateral agreements prior to the 2021 election campaign. This might have been a partisan move to bolster the electoral fortunes of the federal Conservative Party. Yet at least in the case of Premier Jason Kenney’s government, four more-fundamental factors were behind its initial lukewarm-to-hostile response to the Trudeau government’s plan: first, rejection of the universality principle for social welfare programs; second, resistance to government provision of daycare and so-called lack of choice; third, the United Conservative Party’s own rushed and misguided policies on childcare; and finally, Kenney’s long-standing Western Canadian grievances with Canadian federalism.

These were flimsy grounds for opposing $10-a-day childcare, considering that the federal government was promising to transfer to Alberta a staggering $3.8-billion between 2021 and 2026 if the province came on board (an average investment of over $2-million per day). After the conclusion of the federal election, the Kenney government soon decided that continuing opposition to such a beneficial national program was untenable. Yet the same factors that made the Kenney government hesitate to sign up for the national program caused it to come up with a “made-in-Alberta” approach that falls short in its commitments to high-quality ELCC. Alberta’s plan under ELCC will stream working- and middle-class children into basic-quality facilities, while only well-off families will be able to afford the higher parental fees at centres that require staff to hold a two-year diploma in early childhood education.

This is far from the first time Alberta has opposed universality for social welfare programs. Before universal hospital coverage became a central component of Canada’s social safety net in 1957, the provincial governments of Saskatchewan and Alberta pioneered two competing approaches to government support for hospital services. In Saskatchewan in 1947, Premier Tommy Douglas’s Co-operative Commonwealth Federation government introduced a universal program that treated hospital services as a human right available to anyone on the basis of need rather than ability to pay. “For Douglas,” notes University of Toronto health policy specialist Gregory Marchildon, “universality offered greater equality and therefore hope for those who would otherwise be treated or stigmatized as second-class citizens.” Universality meant a “levelling up” of services, in principle guaranteeing a common high standard of hospital care to everyone.

The Social Credit government in Alberta, headed by Premier Ernest Manning, likewise believed that governments had a role to play in ensuring hospital coverage. Its program, however, in effect between 1950 and 1958, was minimalist; it subsidized “the purchase of health insurance for those who could not afford to pay” but left most of the population to make individual decisions on hospital insurance from among available market options. Manning’s underlying values were individual responsibility, consumer choice through markets and government subsidization of social services only as a last resort. His government never abandoned these values. However, after Saskatchewan’s program was adopted as the template for Canada-wide universal hospital coverage, Alberta made significant modifications to its program to qualify for federal financial assistance. Then at the end of the 1960s, the promise of federal money likewise motivated Alberta to abandon its “Manningcare” program of subsidizing existing private insurance policies for doctors’ bills and join the Medicare system.

Although Manning’s values lost out in the Canadian healthcare debates of the 1950s and 1960s, they nevertheless have had an enduring influence on how successive conservative Alberta governments have approached funding daycare. Individual responsibility has been stressed, with parents forced to figure out their best childcare arrangement from an array of regulated and unregulated options that differ widely in price and quality. The rapid expansion of commercial daycare was financed by huge publicly funded operating allowances in the 1980s, leading to the present-day predominance in Alberta of for-profit over not-for-profit daycare (65 per cent to 35 per cent of licensed spaces in daycare centres, 2019). The UCP’s rejection of the universality principle echoes Manning’s reasoning for opposing universal healthcare.

Between the end of the 1970s and 2022, subsidization of the childcare costs of low- and modest-income families was the go-to government policy, with most families receiving small partial subsidies or none at all. The problem with building a childcare system around income-tested subsidies is that it relegates subsidized children to inferior, low-cost options. This is because the maximum subsidy levels must be kept below what unsubsidized parents can reasonably be expected to pay in the market—otherwise those parents will feel hard done by and vociferously complain. Drawing upon Tommy Douglas’s critique of Manning’s health insurance subsidization system as “tin-pot medicare,” a childcare system where government financial aid mainly consists of income-tested subsidies can be called “tin-pot childcare.”

Children from lower-income families who should be receiving the very best ELCC for a “head start” are streamed into cost-cutting services. Meanwhile, middle-income parents who don’t qualify for a substantial subsidy are pushed toward relying on relatives or unlicensed childcare because the market rates at licensed daycares and regulated day homes are too expensive. And parents with ample income simply purchase high-quality licensed care (or go with the high-cost option of hiring a nanny). “Tin-pot childcare” is thus stratified by quality related to the income of users. Unfortunately, the Kenney government is attached to the anachronistic values that justify such a flawed system.

Harper-era attack language doesn’t resonate today; affordability is a bigger concern.

In the 2005–2006 federal election campaign, the Harper Conservatives promised to cancel Liberal plans for a national childcare system and instead provide parents with a $100 a month taxable allowance for each child under the age of 6. As Martha Friendly and Susan Prentice recall in About Canada: Childcare (2009), the Conservatives argued “the embryonic national childcare program would not provide choice for parents and would be an ‘institutional’ and ‘one-size-fits-all’ program with a massive bureaucracy.” Shortly after being elected, the new PM pointed to the “armies of academics, researchers and special interest groups” that had benefited from the developmental work on the Liberal program. In turn, Harper lauded his own $100 a month allowance, since “it cuts out the political and bureaucratic middlemen. It provides real support.”

Premier Kenney used some of the same arguments when commenting on the Trudeau government’s plan for Canada-wide ELCC in April 2021. He called it a “cookie-cutter approach,” echoing the Harper government’s “one-size-fits-all” portrayal. He described it as “government-run” and “union operated,” thereby suggesting that the program would serve the interests of “political and bureaucratic middlemen” and a “special interest group” (labour unions) rather than Canadian families. Both Harper in 2006 and Kenney in 2021 claimed that the respective national childcare plans ignored parents’ choices on childcare.

Times have changed. Attack language that worked for Harper in 2005–2006 doesn’t resonate with as many Albertans today. Affordability is a bigger concern for many families with young children. In recent years the federal Liberal government has implemented the generous Canada Child Benefit to help all but high-income families with the costs of raising children. Unlike in 2005, therefore, a plausible alternative to the Canada-wide ELCC system is not a cash benefit for families with young children, since such a cash benefit is already in place—and daycare remains unaffordable.

Greater public understanding that crucial brain development occurs during the early years makes high-quality ELCC (rather than bargain-basement custodial care) an imperative. Indeed, research suggests that government investments in ELCC create long-term financial benefits to society, such as more-productive citizens with higher lifetime earnings.

Universal childcare will boost women’s labour force participation rate and reduce inequality.

Universal $10-a-day childcare “will increase women’s labour market participation and shrink the gender participation gap as more mothers enter the workforce.” Childcare programs have long been recognized as way to reduce gender inequalities. “COVID has shown us all,” Budget 2021 states, “that [childcare] is an urgent economic issue too.” Specifically, the pandemic created a “she-cession” as women were forced out of employment to care for children. In fact, an economic analysis conducted in 2020 by Jim Stanford concluded, “ELCC services are an economic and social program that literally ‘pays for itself,’ thanks to the government revenues generated automatically through this enhanced economic activity.”

In its early years (2019–2021) the UCP government made decisions on childcare here that are at odds with the direction of the Canada-wide ELCC system. After disbanding the previous NDP government’s $25-a-day pilot programs at 122 not-for-profit centres, it ended the Alberta Childcare Accreditation Program, which had been implemented in 2005 near the end of Ralph Klein’s tenure as premier. The program had been designed to continually improve the quality of care in facilities without having to raise licensing standards; it was ended without so much as token consultation with the 1,000-member-strong Association of Early Childhood Educators of Alberta. Two smaller subsidy programs, also cut by Kenney without consultation, had helped pay for licensed preschool and had subsidized the care of children by relatives.

This run of cuts, rooted in opposition to universality, and a zealousness to reduce government’s regulatory and financial role in childcare, made it hard for Kenney’s government to embrace the Canada-wide ELCC program.

Kenney reacted strongly to news that Quebec had signed on to the ELCC program without the conditions required of other provinces. It boiled down to “it’s just not fair” that Quebec can do what it wants with the money and Ottawa won’t offer us the same deal. When the $10-a-day childcare plan was announced in the federal budget, Alberta finance minister Travis Toews said Alberta wanted its share of the promised funding with no strings attached. Kenney built on this theme the day after Quebec’s agreement was announced: “We very specifically said we wanted the same kind of flexibility that Quebec traditionally gets. Ottawa told us no. Then yesterday they signed exactly that kind of deal with Quebec. This is part of a pattern. Why are Western provinces being treated as second class by Justin Trudeau?”

For the last quarter century, Quebec has been the only province with widely available, affordable childcare. Initiated in 1997 as a $5/day program ($8.50/day in 2021), it has contributed to an increase in the employment rate of mothers with young children that has outpaced increases in other large provinces. Quebec’s strong commitment to affordable childcare is demonstrated by its high spending. For instance, its per capita spending on regulated childcare programs (age 0–12), 2018–2019, was $2,296, more than four times what Alberta spent ($503).

Quebec’s role in pioneering affordable childcare was recognized when the province reached its “asymmetric agreement” with Ottawa in summer 2021. The agreement promised to transfer almost $6-billion to Quebec over five years. In recognition of the fact that Quebec had already largely achieved the objectives of the Canada-wide universal ELCC system and had already invested billions of dollars in ELCC over and above other provinces, the money is to be transferred with none of the terms, conditions and monitoring required of other provinces.

Kenney’s comments may well have been intended to rile up anti-Trudeau sentiment in Alberta just prior to the 2021 federal election. Factually, however, they were misleading. The differential treatment of Quebec and Alberta is justified because Quebec has already realized the objectives of the ELCC program, while Alberta has a long way to go. If any other province or territory had invested as heavily in affordable childcare as Quebec over the last quarter century, it too would have qualified for money with no strings attached. Indeed, in response to Kenney’s complaint about Canada’s “two-tier federation,” Trudeau said, “If Alberta had childcare at $8-a-day across the province, we would have had an approach similar to Quebec. So let’s not create constitutional conventions out of this.”

After the Liberals won the federal election and just days after the swearing in of Karina Gould, the new federal minister of families, children and social development, the Alberta and federal governments began intense negotiations on the specifics of an action plan for $10-a-day childcare in Alberta. The bilateral agreement was signed on November 14, triggering the initial flow of federal funds in early 2022. The big news at the November 15 announcement ceremony was that fees for licensed childcare would be reduced on average by half right across Alberta starting in January 2022. Tens of thousands of Alberta families would soon be saving hundreds of dollars every month on childcare fees. A boom in daycare, family day home and preschool enrolments was sure to follow—a welcome development for a sector which had suffered a financial hit from low enrolments during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In this agreement with Alberta, the federal government did not give any ground on the key elements that had defined its agreements with other jurisdictions: universal, $10/day childcare by 2026 is a requirement; unlicensed/unregulated childcare is excluded; and, while all existing for-profit spaces are eligible to receive federal funding, a planned expansion of licensed capacity by 42,500 spaces will be limited to the not-for-profit sector (although growth of home-based childcare under a licensed agency is a secondary priority).

In the November 15 press conference, Kenney suggested that the province had bargained hard to get “all types of licensed childcare for kids aged up to kindergarten included in the deal,” including part-day preschool programs. Yet the Canada–Yukon bilateral agreement, signed in the summer of 2021, specified that “preschools and nursery schools” qualified for participation in the ELCC system. How hard was it for Alberta to secure what Yukon had already achieved? Later the premier was asked what in the bilateral deal justified the delay Alberta parents had endured. He replied, “A heck of a lot more flexibility to respond to the needs of Alberta parents. This province is different. One of the ways it’s different is we have by far the largest percentage of childcare spaces offered by private operators, and they initially did not qualify in the initial deal that was offered. We didn’t want to exclude all of those parents. We got what we believe is a much better arrangement that reflects the diversity of choices of Alberta parents.”

This statement is false. Alberta is not all that unique when it comes to the role of commercial childcare—it is just one of the seven provinces/territories where for-profit centre spaces were more prevalent in 2019, with Newfoundland and Labrador leading the way in this regard. Hence, other jurisdictions had to negotiate the role of their commercial operators long before Alberta got around to it.

Both Kenney and Alberta minister of children’s services Rebecca Schulz have portrayed the UCP’s fight for expanding the commercial sector’s role in $10-a-day childcare as support for the many “female entrepreneurs” who operate daycares and family day homes. They’ve failed to mention, however, that the UCP’s action simultaneously supports corporate childcare, namely the BrightPath chain that runs 32 daycares in Alberta (24 in Calgary and surrounding municipalities) and the Kids & Company chain that operates 31 daycares (split between the Calgary and Edmonton regions). BrightPath, which also has 46 centres in Ontario and seven in BC, was purchased in 2017 by Busy Bees Nurseries, the UK’s largest childcare corporation. At the time, BrightPath ran 77 centres in Canada. The sale price of $145-million valued each centre at about $1.9-million.

A crucial question to be addressed in coming months is whether BrightPath, with its primary responsibility to investors’ rate of return, should have a growing role in providing $10-a-day childcare in Alberta. Brooke Richardson’s study of licensing inspection data for 29 of BrightPath’s Alberta centres in 2013–14 compared to 29 geographically matched not-for-profit centres, suggests not: “The quality of care offered by the corporate for-profit model at BrightPath falls short of that supplied by not-for-profits.” Most importantly, BrightPath centres had more than twice as many critical-incident investigations as the not-for profit centres and were the subject of 41 complaint investigations, more than 10 times the frequency at the not-for-profits.

The best feature of the Kenney government’s action plan for $10-a-day childcare is the substantial reduction in fees that started in January 2022. In other ways, however, Alberta’s plan lacks the imagination and commitment to quality ELCC seen in other provincial/territorial plans. Newfoundland will be developing a pre-kindergarten program for 4-year-olds with its ELCC money. It has also committed to increasing the percentage of staff that are “fully certified Early Childhood Educators” to at least 60 per cent by the end of 2025. BC has promised to invest $2.5-billion in childcare over the next three years on top of the funds committed by the federal government. To stabilize its labour force, Yukon has mandated the highest minimum wage in the country for a childcare worker with an ECE diploma (roughly $30 an hour). Along the same line, Manitoba has pledged to bring in “a wage floor for different positions and classifications.”

Alberta’s initial plans for space creation and quality enhancement do not measure up. The $241-million earmarked for creating 42,500 new not-for-profit spaces works out to just $5,670 per space. Will community groups be expected to hold bake sales to raise the money to build or expand an ELCC centre? Further, there is no mention of mandatory minimum wages or a commitment to increasing the wage supplements that have been a feature of Alberta’s childcare system since 2002 (but frozen in value since 2008). And there are no specifics on a commitment to “improve certification levels for our early childhood educator workforce,” a crucial issue given that 40 per cent of the childcare workforce in Alberta has no formal education in the field (it can soar as high as 67 per cent in any given daycare under current regulations).

Worst of all, the Kenney government has created a new version of “tin-pot childcare” with its funding formula. Affordability grants for providers are based on “average program fees across the province” rather than on the true cost of a particular program. As a consequence, these grants, in combination with income-tested subsidies, will put a cap on government financial support for any particular child, thus acting to replicate the stratified system in place prior to 2022.

For example, the fee for a toddler at a high-quality childcare centre in Calgary in the fall of 2021 was $1,310 a month. Under the new ELCC, this fee will be reduced by $510 through a grant paid directly to the centre. It could be reduced by an additional $266 using an income-tested subsidy also paid directly to the centre. Thus the fee for a toddler at the centre in question now sits between $800 (for families with yearly gross incomes of $180,000 or more) and $534 (for families under $120,000).

For low- and modest-income families, a $534 monthly childcare bill would still take a big bite out of the household budget. Therefore, they will be incentivized to scour the market for a cheaper option—perhaps a centre that had only charged $900 a month in the fall of 2021 because many of its staff had no formal early childhood education training. In this second example, the same operating grant and subsidy will be applied, meaning that low- and modest-income families will see a monthly fee of only $124.

Under the UCP government’s model, high-quality ELCC will be a prerogative of families who have the money to afford a hefty monthly fee, while families of more limited means will be pushed towards lower-cost options. Albertans would not tolerate a healthcare system that provided multiple tiers of service depending upon one’s ability to pay. Our new ELCC system must be fixed to eliminate this systemic deficiency.

At the ceremony marking the Canada–Alberta agreement on ELCC, two federal ministers—Chrystia Freeland and Karina Gould—made a point of paying tribute to the tireless work of local childcare advocates. Gould said, “Thank you to the women and men who have been fighting for affordable, quality, inclusive childcare in this province for decades.” And deputy prime minister Freeland—who spent her early years in Alberta’s Peace Country—spoke of her late mother, Halyna Chomiak Freeland: “One of the Alberta women who, when the royal commission on the status of women came out just over 50 years ago with its historic report calling for the urgent creation of a national system of early learning and childcare …with her friends worked so hard to build it. They didn’t quite get there,” she noted, “but I was in the kitchen playing on the floor when I heard them working hard, and I knew how important it was. And so I really want to say first of all to Alberta’s grandmothers, to that amazing generation of second-wave feminists, you started this work and I am so pleased to say to you today we are getting the job done.” On a more sobering note, however, Gould advised, “…for all those advocates out there, for all those childcare providers, this ambitious agreement will continue to need your support to meet its objectives.”

Tom Langford is a professor emeritus of sociology at U of C and the author of Alberta’s Day Care Controversy: From 1908 to 2009 and Beyond (AUP).


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