A while back, in challenging the oft-repeated Poilievre party refrain that everything in this country is getting worse (or words to that effect), I went out on a limb by committing to a series pointing out how, after eight-plus years under the Justin Trudeau Liberals, some things were actually getting better.

One example I had in mind was day care. After promising it for decades, and dragging their feet  through the first six years of their mandate, the Liberals finally came through in a big expensive way in the 2021 budget with the Canada-wide Early Learning and Child Care Plan

Under the plan, the federal government has begun transferring billions of dollars to provincial governments, resulting in significantly reduced day care fees across the country. To get the federal cash, provinces had to agree to cut average parent fees by 50 per cent by the end of 2022 and progress to an average of $10 a day by 2026.A recent report from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) found that a lot of progress is being made in reducing fees. 

Out of 32 cities surveyed, 18 had experienced reduced fees of at least 50 per cent, and another half dozen cities had seen fees cut by 40 per cent or more. Three provinces – Newfoundland and Labrador, Manitoba and Saskatchewan have already reached the $10/day target and fees in Quebec’s subsidized system have been below $10 since its inception. As the report by CCPA chief economist David Macdonald and Martha Friendly of the Childcare Resource and Research Unit observed, “Canada is well on its way to more affordable child care.”  

Unfortunately for the Trudeau Liberals, who can’t catch a break these days, the good news about day care fees has been drowned out by complaints about the shortage of spaces. That’s because, aside from Quebec, provincial governments have been lollygagging for decades on the creation of affordable day care. The reduction in fees means that more parents can now afford day care, but that has led to increased demand for the already limited number of spaces. 

Where are the spaces?

In an earlier study released last May, Macdonald and Friendly reported that slightly more than half of children who could use child care spaces lived in so-called “child care deserts”:  communities with more than three children per licensed space.  Saskatchewan was the worst – 92 per cent of younger children lived in child care deserts – followed by Newfoundland and Labrador at 79 per cent and Manitoba at 76 per cent. 

Those same three provinces are the first to reach the $10/day target – not surprising given that they received millions in transfers from Ottawa they could put towards reducing fees for the relatively small percentage of parents fortunate enough to have a licensed day care space. Good news, the rates are going way down. Bad news – there are no spaces.

Fees in Saskatoon, Regina and St. John’s were cut by around 75 per cent, according to the CCPA report, while in Winnipeg the reduction was 66.7 per cent. Cities with more spaces had to share the federal largesse with more families. As a result, fees dropped only 43.7 per cent in Halifax and it was a similar story in other Maritime cities, ranging from a drop of 47.5 per cent in Saint John to 41.2 per cent in Charlottetown.   

The child care plan has several objectives – higher wages, a more qualified workforce,  better service to diverse communities – but next to fees, accessibility is the most visible sign of progress. On that score, the feds want to add 250,000 new full-time licensed spaces by 2026, an increase of 33 per cent above the current number. It’s not clear whether that’s enough to meet the need – the CCPA estimates there are 945,000 children who could use full-time licensed spaces if they existed. And it is also difficult to judge progress toward achieving even that goal of  250,000 additional spaces

Provinces are supposed to report their plans on an annual basis, but despite getting hundreds of millions in cash from the feds, most have not done so. The few who have appear to be falling short. Saskatchewan, the driest of the child care deserts according to the CCPA, is committed to adding 28,000 spaces by 2026 but reported a net increase of only 642 spaces in year one of its agreement. New Brunswick, committed to an additional 3,400 spaces but added only 300 in its first year.

Nova Scotia has yet to make public its latest action plan and the numbers coming out from the provincial government have been confusing.  A June 2023 report released to the NDP through Freedom of Information revealed that the Houston government had only opened 28 net new day care spaces province-wide, as of May 2023. However, new numbers released last week claim a net gain of 796 spaces over the first two years of the agreement. Nova Scotia has also added 768 “Before and After School” places, which would count as progress towards the 2025-6 goal of adding 9,500 spaces. So, maybe nearly 1,600 added, 7,900 to go over the next two years and a bit.   

What seemed like a straightforward example of something that the Trudeau government has made better, turns out to be a bit more complicated. Thus far, complaints about the shortage of spaces, wait lists and low wages have been getting more air time than the significant reductions in fees that would be saving some families thousands of dollars. 

The bumpy rollout of the program can be blamed in part on factors beyond the Liberal government’s control, a key consideration being that provincial governments are responsible for the execution. And the pandemic, which highlighted the importance of child care to the functioning of the economy, also led to the closure of many centres. Statistics Canada’s Survey on Early Learning and Child Care, published in June, 2022, reported that as of early 2022 some centres were still operating at reduced capacity with enrolment below pre-pandemic levels.

Politics, politics

But the Liberals also have to accept part of the blame. It may be recalled that back in 2015 when the Liberals and the NDP were competing to see which party would replace the worn-out Harper government the NDP’s key platform plank was   universal $15-a-day child care and creation of 370,000 new spaces over four years. The Liberals responded to that with a commitment to spend $20 billion over the next decade on “social infrastructure,” including creation of a “National Early Learning and Child Care Framework to ensure that affordable, high-quality, fully inclusive child care is available to all families who need it.” As I wrote at the time, the Liberals’ 2017 budget told a different story:

That (the child care promise) was great campaign rhetoric – accompanied with a big dollar number – to counter the NDP’s day care plank. But the reality revealed in budget documents show in detail the extent to which the Liberal plank was driven not by a plan to significantly improve day care, but by the political need to checkmate the NDP. There was no money in the 2016 budget for child care and none in the 2017 budget either. The promised “Framework” has not yet materialized as the feds reportedly try to convince the provinces to agree to a plan that would target Ottawa’s support to low-income parents. If the provinces and feds do reach agreement, the promised $7 billion will start to flow in next year’s budget but will total only about $1.1 billion by 2020.

It’s obvious the Liberal day care plan doesn’t hold a candle to the NDP proposal it was meant to neutralize. Instead of the $4 billion committed over a four-year mandate proposed by the NDP, the Liberals may spend about $1.1 billion. Instead of creating 370,000 spaces at $15 a day, the Liberals may create about 25,000 subsidized ones before their mandate expires. And their plan does nothing to bring down costs which can be as high as $80 a day in Toronto and $40-$50 a day in places like Halifax.

And here’s more irony for you. The Liberal child care plan of 2017 doesn’t even measure up to the one that Ken Dryden negotiated with the provinces on behalf of the Paul Martin government back in 2005. That plan, subsequently torpedoed for ideological reasons by the Harper government, was worth $5 billion over five years. The Dryden plan works out to about $30 a head for each province – or nearly $30 million for Nova Scotia. The Trudeau plan works out to about $15 per capita before it increases a bit in 2022. But when inflation is taken into account, the Trudeau plan is worth less than half what the feds put on the table for child care a dozen years ago.

Their record on child care is consistent with the long-established Liberal pattern of campaigning from the left and governing from the centre-right. This approach gives rise to vague promises about national this and national that – mental health, home care, housing, pharmacare – that amount to little in the end. Child care was in that same aspirational basket until the Liberals decided to put some real money into it as a way of increasing parental (predominately female) participation in our depleted labour force. 

The economic benefits, demonstrated by Quebec’s female labour force participation rate, means that unlike in 2006,  national child care may survive an ideologically-driven Conservative government. But you never know. The Poilievre party constantly tells supporters that “it’s time to reverse the woke Liberal-NDP policies.” Someone should ask Poilievre whether the early learning and child care plan is one of the “woke” policies to be reversed.