Universal Child Care

What Happened

In 2006 the newly-elected Conservative government cancelled the national child care program initiated by the previous Liberal administration and replaced it with the Universal Child Care Benefit (UCCB; a taxable monthly benefit of $100 per child under six years of age). This, they argued, offered “choice” to Canadian parents.

In related moves, Stephen Harper’s administration undermined Canada’s child care advocates. Over the course of his minority and majority governments, groups such the Canadian Child Care Federation and the Child Care Advocacy Association of Canada lost crucial federal subsidies. Treated as special interest groups and enemies of the Conservative agenda, their commitment to evidence-based public policy and the best interests of Canadian parents and children was ignored.


Evidence and Policy

Ottawa’s resistance to a federal child care program contradicted decades of expert evidence. In 2007, the Ministerial Advisory Committee on the Government of Canada’s Child Care Spaces might have suited its Conservative masters by emphasizing the contribution of employers, but it had to acknowledge that research on child care supported “flexibility, innovation, creativity and collaboration” in meeting the “diverse opinions, priorities and perspectives of all stakeholders.” Its appeal for affordable, high quality care was, however, immediately shelved, effectively to disappear from policy debates. Evidence, however, did not evaporate. In November 2014, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives published The Parent Trap: Child Care Fees in Canada’s Big Cities, which once again affirmed that the great majority of “Canadian parents are working parents” and that good child care is an urgent need, not a passing fancy.

The Conservative 2006 pledge of parental choice has not been realized. One of Canada’s leading scholarly commentators on child care has concluded that “based on available demographic, financial, coverage, and staffing information, the analysis finds that indicators of access and quality have remained static or weakened despite the public expenditure” in the years between 2006 and 2012 (Friendly 2013). In October 2014, a report by the Ontario Ombudsman, Careless about Child Care, rang further alarms about the consequences of government negligence in the child care portfolio, including lengthy waiting lists, prohibitive costs, and the vulnerability of many children in unlicensed sites.

Such reports, combined with the evident success of the provincial child care program in Quebec discussed below, helped keep child care in Canada’s political spotlight. In the run-up to an election in 2015, federal political parties now grapple with what has been aptly named ‘the magical unicorn of public policy,’ so often glimpsed but not yet realized (Renzetti). In October 2014 the NDP staked out the progressive ground, embracing federally financed daycare as a major policy plank in its campaign program. Some two weeks later the Conservative government set out a rival standard, eliminating the existing Child Tax Credit to pay for an expanded UCCB and introducing a (capped) version of income splitting. While individual parents got limited relief, once again Conservatives made no provision for improving child care spaces or quality and favoured the better-off and families in which mothers stayed at home to allow fathers to concentrate on breadwinning.

Revealingly, the official website of the Conservative Party headed its announcement of the October 2014 initiative with a telling phrase that ignored the caring dilemmas of most Canadians with young children: “New Tax Breaks for Canadian Families.” Its cheerful cartoons featured no same-sex families or the great majority of single parents who are mothers. While the UCCB did little to meet real child care costs or address the reality that women’s equality was compromised by the lack of affordable, high quality spaces, the federal government’s choice to defer the increased payments of the UCCB until July 2015 seemed deliberate. Voters receiving such a windfall just before an anticipated election might reward Conservatives, even as their real needs went unmet.


Responsibility for children has always rested disproportionately with Canadian women. So long as most mothers were not in the paid labour force, public or state provision of care of children was generally considered a short-term remedy for two-parent families in dire straits or single mothers who were likely to be judged morally suspect. Right from the beginning, the provision of child care services was linked to charity and family failure and that association remains to trouble 21st century discussions. Once the so-called ‘double day’ of domestic and paid labour became the majority experience of Canadian mothers, accessible child care (sometimes called ‘day’ care, though it might well involve duties spread over 24 hours) nevertheless grew as a public, and political, issue.

The situation was especially serious for lone parent families, most headed by women, which grew from 8.4% in 1961 to 16.3% of all census families in 2011. In 2012 Human Resources and Skills Development Canada reported that 75% of mothers of children aged three to five worked in the paid labour force and that 78.2% of Canadian children under age six had no access to regulated child care. In 2006 Canada ranked lowest among 14 OECD countries in public funding for child care as a proportion of GDP. It got worse. Although “total Canada-wide public spending” on child care averaged $236.4 million per year from 1998-2006, that number dropped by almost 50% to $121.8 million (unadjusted dollars) for 2006-2012.

The growing numbers of mothers in paid employment has kept child care a major concern for Second Wave Feminism. In 1970 the Report of the Royal Commission on Women recommended a national child care program. Modern feminists routinely embrace accessible high quality child care as a meaningful expression of equality in employment, public life, and citizenship. They scored a major victory when the Parti Québécois government, prompted by its significant feminist support, initiated a massive expansion of Quebec services beginning in 1997 with $5-a-day-after-school care (increased by Quebec's Liberal government in 2004 to $7-a-day). By 2014 a leading economist reckoned that the provincial scheme “more than pays for itself through mothers’ annual income and consumption taxes” (Monsebraaten). Even so, the return of a Liberal government to power in April 2014 brought threats of heightened charges for Canada’s flagship child care program (Plante). Those threats materialised in November 2014 when the Liberal government announced the introduction of a sliding scale based on family income. Families making $55,000 or under would still pay $7-per-day, but other families would be assessed a higher amount, up to $20-per-day for families making over $150,000 per year. Even with this increase, a CBC report suggests that child-care costs in Quebec would still remain the most affordable in Canada.

In the meantime, the Conservative UCCB, even in its enhanced state, does little for Canada’s many financially strapped families and mothers. They must still seek cheap options. In contrast to the financially secure who can undertake extended and informed searches for quality and safety, many Canadians have to turn to unregulated private suppliers. No wonder affordability and safety spur parental nightmares.

Relevant Dates:

  • 1970 Royal Commission on the Status of Women recommends national child care program;
  • 1997 Quebec introduces $5-a-day subsidized daycare program;
  • 2005 Liberal government committed $5 billion over five years to enhance and expand early learning and child care in collaboration with provinces and territories;
  • 2006 Conservative government withdrew from the bilateral child care agreements with the provinces and territories and offered a ‘Choice in Child Care Allowance’ for children under six and a Community Child Care Investment Program with tax credits for employers;
  • 2007 the Report of Ministerial Advisory Committee on the Government of Canada’s Child Care Spaces Initiative;
  • 2013 Martha Friendly, The $17.5 billion question: Has the Universal Child Care Benefit given families “choice in child care”?;
  • 2014 October the Federal NDP proposes $15-a-day national child-care program;
  • 2014 October Conservative government expands the UCCB and introduced income splitting for tax purposes.

Role or Position

Non-existent as of 2014, but likely an issue in the 2015 federal election.

Implications and Consequences

Equality and Free Speech: The absence of affordable, high quality child care limits the ability of the majority of Canadian parents, most particularly mothers, to participate fully in paid employment and public life.

Democracy: Existing government policies both by design and by neglect favour the economically advantaged who can afford private sector supports for their parenting. The results foster a mounting gap between rich and poor in Canada and contribute to the democratic deficit in public life.

Silencing Knowledge: The cutting of funding to child care advocacy groups and the dismissal of evidence-based reports on child care undermine public policy and the right of Canadians get information to hold governments accountable.

Published: Jan. 15 2015
Image: Colin McConnell/Toronto Star