National Childcare: Old Promise, New Election

As Canada’s political parties gear up for an election this year, national childcare is back on the agenda. The NDP has already promised to create 1 million $15-a-day childcare spaces. But this isn’t the first time national childcare has been on the table, and it didn’t come to fruition then. Should Canadians expect anything different this time around?

To contextualize the issue, childcare in Canada (excluding Quebec) is provided under a “liberal welfare state” model where the open market provides childcare, with minimal government intervention. As described by Rianne Mahon, the liberal welfare model “focuses on the provision of social assistance to the poor while offering only limited public support to the rest of the population. It is assumed that the majority are able to rely on market income…to provide the requisite care.”[1] Fair enough – if the majority can pay and therefore can choose who provides their childcare on the open market, why involve the government?

However, childcare can only be provided by the open market in part because of the income disparity in Canada; there are enough workers willing to provide childcare at relatively low cost to meet demand. Kimberly Morgan argues: “the low wages and poor conditions of the workers who staff these services provide an essential subsidy to the childcare industry.”[2] These low wages and poor working conditions have made it so the price of childcare remains just barely within the means of enough of the middle class, to let the “federal…government off the hook from having to subsidize these programs.”[3] This contrasts with the Scandinavian countries where minimum wage is so high as to make childcare wholly out of reach for the middle class. But what about all the Canadians who can’t afford childcare? Shouldn’t that be enough to get universal childcare going?

In the Canadian context, balancing the budget has consistently taken precedence over increased expenditure on childcare. During the 1984 federal election, the NDP, Liberals and Progressive Conservatives all promised a national day care program.[4] Upon taking office, Brian Mulroney “was more concerned about reducing the national debt than in preserving or extending social programs, [and he] reneged on his promise.”[5] Similarly, the Liberals led by Jean Chretien campaigned on the development of a national childcare system during the 1993 federal election.[6] However, once in power, the Liberals were “committed to the elimination of the deficit and the reduction of the debt.”[7] Consequently, the introduction of new government spending was out of the question and the ensuing cutbacks “had negative impacts on social programs, including child care.”[8]

Upon taking office in 2006, the current Conservative government, led by Stephen Harper announced the Choice in Child Care plan, which provided direct cash transfers to families and tax breaks to businesses. This replaced the previous plan set in place by the Martin Liberals, which had focused on creating affordable day care spaces. The Choice in Child Care allowance provided $100 a month to parents for each child under six, with no provisions for income.[9] In October 2014, the Conservative government announced an increase to the Choice in Child Care allowance from $100 to $160 per child.[10]

This brings us back to the current NDP and their promise for 1 million $15-a-day daycare spots. As ending cash payments to the public is about as unpopular as increasing taxes, Mulcair has promised to keep Harper’s program. This means the NDP will have to find the funds for a national daycare system somewhere other than turning what is currently being spent on the Choice in Child Care program into a national day care system. So should Canadians expect to see the creation of a universal childcare program should the NDP win the next election? History tells us the answer is no, given the number of times it has been campaigned on before being dropped once in office for budgetary reasons.

[1] Rianne Mahon, “The never-ending story: the struggle for universal child care policy in the 1970s,” The Canadian Historical Review, 81 (2000), 582

[2] Kimberly J. Morgan, “The “Production of Child Care: How Labor Markets Shape Social Policy and Vice Versa,” Social Politics: International Studies in Gender, State and Society, 12 (2005), 245-246

[3] Ibid., 243

[4] Alvin Finkel, Social Policy and Practice in Canada: A History, (Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press), 213.

[5] Finkel, Social Policy and Practice, 213.

[6] Rebecca Kelley Scherer, “Federal Child Care Policy Development from World War II to 2000 in Changing Child Care, Five Decades of Child Care Advocacy and Policy in Canada, ed. Susan Prentice. (Halifax: Fernwood Publishing, 2001), 193

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Julie Cool, “Child Care in Canada: The Federal Role,” Library of Parliament, PRB 04-20E, 2007,, 7

[10] Bill Curry and Steven Chase, “Harper boosts monthly child benefit, unveils income splitting plan,” Globe and Mail, October 30, 2014.