Editor’s note: This story led off this week’s Early Childhood newsletter, which is delivered free to subscribers’ inboxes every other Wednesday with trends and top stories about early learning.
Just over 50 years ago, long before a global pandemic knocked 100,000 Canadian women out of the work force and left child care providers reeling, a national commission urged the Canadian government to underwrite the costs for a nationwide child care system that would also lower fees for families.
Now, an offshoot of that recommendation has come to fruition. In 2021, Canada’s leaders committed $30 billion (about $24 billion in U.S. dollars) over five years to the country’s first federally-funded child care system. The new system aims to provide child care for an average of $10 a day in licensed settings, with plans to create an additional 250,000 spots for children by 2026.
Canadian experts say a host of factors contributed to the country’s eventual success in taking large-scale federal action on early learning. Ultimately, though, it took a pandemic, shutting down businesses and schools, for Canada to invest such a large amount of funds.
This movement came after decades of structured, organized advocacy, much of which started after the commission’s report. Child care has been a cornerstone of the feminist movement in Canada, and parents and various nonprofit groups have partnered to champion the cause. Canadian labor groups have also supported the efforts, something that has recently become a more prominent strategy in the United States, especially after efforts to pass child care legislation faltered in 2022.
More recently, advocates have presented child care as a public good and a right, similar to K-12 education. That argument has helped build support, said Morna Ballantyne, executive director of Child Care Now, an advocacy association in Canada. “It’s always been understood that it is good for kids, and it’s good for the economy, and it’s good for society, to have a public led, funded and organized public education system. Why not the same for younger children, especially when we know that early childhood education is as important, if not more important, to the long-term well-being of children?”
Having women in positions of power — including Chrystia Freeland, the nation’s first female minister of finance — was crucial to ushering the proposed program through Parliament in 2021, experts say, despite continued opposition from some conservative lawmakers. Similarly, in Quebec, education minister Pauline Marois helped usher in the province’s child care system two decades ago. “The fact that we had a strong woman in power really, really made the difference both for Quebec in the late 1990s and for Canada in 2021,” said Sophie Mathieu, senior program specialist at the Vanier Institute of the Family, an organization focused on family wellbeing in Canada.
For many years, the province of Quebec has shown the potential benefits of government funding for child care. In 1997, Quebec began offering low-cost, flat-fee child care. While quality can be uneven, the program has contributed to an increase in the number of women in the workforce and a higher domestic income. Quebec also stood out from the rest of the country during the pandemic. “Canada saw that the [child care] system was not really affected by the pandemic in Quebec,” said Mathieu. “Childcare in Quebec is heavily subsidized, so the fact that they didn’t get the parents’ money didn’t really affect them.”
The nationwide child care initiative has embraced some key aspects of Quebec’s flat-fee plan, as well as messaging from British Columbia’s “$10 a Day” child care initiative, which rolled out in 2018 to bring low-cost child care to families in the province. That messaging is easy to grasp and well-liked by parents — more so, experts say, than American proposals to link child care costs to a percentage of a family’s income.
“Our federal government realized the popular success of the ‘$10 a Day’ branding,” said Sharon Gregson, provincial spokesperson for the Coalition of Child Care Advocates of BC. “I think the federal politicians were smart enough to pay attention and realize not only was this necessary, it’s also something people will vote for.”
These isolated efforts by provinces to pay for child care with public money helped inspire larger change, and could be a strategy for child care advocates in the United States, said Martha Friendly, executive director of the Canadian-based nonprofit Childcare Resource and Research Unit, who previously worked on child care policy in the United States. While a bottom-up approach can’t be the only strategy to ease the challenges in the child care industry, “You can do things incrementally to push things forward locally, on a state level or on a regional level, and sometimes that does have a way of pushing the envelope on something [larger],” she said.
Canada’s example of a federally-supported child care system may be of particular interest in the United States, and one many child care advocates hope to see here. But although the two countries are close — both geographically and in terms of having diverse populations spread out over a sprawling country — there is a key, social difference that Canadian experts point to that helped pave the way for this type of investment in child care. Long before the pandemic, far more Canadians than Americans embraced the idea that the government should offer extensive, universal support to families. Canada provides annual family allowances to support child rearing and the country offers universal health care. It boasts a comparatively generous paid parental leave policy: Young infants are rare in Canadian child care centers because parents can stay home with their children and receive part of their income for a year or more, depending on province.
“We expect government to step up,” said Susan Prentice, Duff Roblin Professor of Government at the University of Manitoba. “There remains, still, a Canadian tradition in believing that government is part of the solution.”
This is my last Early Childhood newsletter before I head out on leave as a fellow with the Spencer Education Journalism Fellowship at the Columbia Journalism School, where I will focus on researching and reporting on the consequences of a lack of high quality child care. If you’d like to chat about that topic, feel free to email me at email@example.com. In the meantime, my colleagues Ariel Gilreath and Sarah Carr will be your go-to sources for early childhood coverage. I’ll see you in 2024!
This story about child care in Canada was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.