In Ontario, Quality National Childcare Just Suffered a Major Setback

Ontario recently signed on to Justin Trudeau’s national childcare program. However, the foot-dragging and chicanery of the province’s premier, Doug Ford, has led to a second-rate deal. Kids and childcare workers deserve better.

Ontario premier Doug Ford has signed on to the national childcare deal in Canada which commits the province to bringing the cost of childcare down to $10/day by 2025. (freetime Jam / Unsplash)

On March 28, Ontario’s Conservative premier, Doug Ford, announced the launch of a historic agreement with Canada’s federal government, signing on to the national childcare deal. The agreement commits the province to bringing the cost of childcare down to $10/day by 2025.

The broad strokes of the deal include a federal transfer of $13.2 billion to the province to be used over the course of six years to reduce childcare fees to the targeted $10 a day. For its part, Ontario’s provincial government will expand families’ access to childcare by creating seventy-one thousand new childcare spots.

The reduction in childcare fees will not happen all at once. By the end of 2022, childcare fees for children who are six years old and younger will be reduced by 50 percent. Starting this month, retroactive rebate checks will be used to reimburse families for 25 percent of the costs of childcare, with a further 25 percent reduction to be implemented by the year’s end. Additional reductions will be put into effect by September 2024 and again in 2025, at which point the cost for spaces should average $10 per day.

The deal is a landmark — it represents the country’s first foray into establishing a national childcare system. However, the final terms of Ontario’s deal, which contains deficiencies that are there by design, leave much to be desired. Ford has negotiated a subpar deal that leaves room for for-profit centers to claim a piece of the federal funding pie while denying childcare workers a livable wage. These defects in the agreement ensure that implementing an accessible, high-quality childcare system by 2025 will be difficult, if not impossible.

Better Late Than Never?

Ontario came in dead last when it came to finally signing on to the childcare agreement. Most premiers of other provinces successfully negotiated and signed a deal with the federal government in 2021. Ford, meanwhile, in an attempt to make political hay of battling Ottawa, delayed the deal as a ploy to improve his chances of reelection in June.

If we take Ford at his word, he was using this time to try to get Ontario “the best deal possible.” And yet Ford failed to secure additional funding for supporting children with special needs or for increasing supports in rural and northern communities. Neither of these important measures are present in the province’s news release on the deal.

Rather, it seems that in feigning bold negotiations with Justin Trudeau to get the “best” deal, Ford has left parents with a raw deal. Had Ford signed the agreement in January, when his government said it was close to striking a deal with the federal government, these parents would not be on the hook for the thousands of extra dollars that would have been covered. Although signing in January would have still left Ontario as the last holdout on the childcare deal, a family with a toddler in day care in Toronto would have saved approximately $1,200 — disbursed as a retroactive rebate covering 25 percent of the costs of childcare for the months of January to March.

Substandard For-Profit Care

Ford’s delay in signing the deal appears to be a means for securing the flexibility needed to use federal funding to support expansion in the for-profit childcare sector. The government claims that by funding a mixed model of for-profit and nonprofit care it will be able to “support predominantly female entrepreneurs across the province.” It is true that many for-profit childcare providers are individual women who are providing care out of their homes, but this statement obscures the growing presence of for-profit care in the country. The burgeoning for-profit sector includes incorporated childcare centers that are generating revenues of more than $1 million per year, excluding government subsidies.

There is very good evidence to support the funding of public and nonprofit care over for-profit childcare. Because for-profit centers take the funds that public and nonprofit centers use to support staff working conditions — pocketing the money or funneling it to shareholders — they tend to provide lower quality care.

Because of a lack of coverage of the issue, it can be difficult for the public to understand just how bad for-profit care is for their children. Making matters worse, when childcare is covered, the media often taps the likes of the pro-market Association of Day Care Operators of Ontario (ADCO) for their opinion. A striking example of this occurred in the early 1990s, when New Democrat Bob Rae was premier of the province. At the time, the Globe and Mail published an article in which the ADCO accused Rae and his government of being “a socialistic government that wants to socialize everything.” This tautological reproach was provoked by Rae’s commitment of $75 million to encourage for-profit childcare centers to convert to the nonprofit system.

Since then, the ADCO have steadfastly defended private care and substandard childcare provision in the province. They recently lauded Ford for “taking the time” to negotiate a deal that allows the province to fund for-profit centers.

If Ford truly wants to build a high-quality childcare system, the solution isn’t to throw money at low-quality for-profit operators. His government needs to expand childcare within the nonprofit and public sectors — just as Rae’s government committed to doing in the 1990s and just as Nova Scotia’s government is doing right now.

An Insult to Childcare Workers

Childcare workers are leaving the profession in droves. At present, their incomes barely hover above the minimum wage and workloads continue to increase. Ford claims to believe that childcare is a difficult job that requires a special skillset, but his deal with the federal government doesn’t reflect this. Ford’s wage floor, which sets childcare workers’ wages at $18/hour, will reach $25/hour — but not for seven years. Ford appears to think that this largely female workforce is willing to burn itself out as a labor of love and that childcare workers will not change professions for higher wages and better working conditions.

If Ford hopes to attract the workforce needed to make $10/day childcare possible, he needs to agree to a wage grid. Childcare advocacy organizations have been demanding a wage grid since 2017. This demand is informed by an Association for Early Childhood Educators of Ontario (AECEO) report titled, “Transforming Work in Ontario’s Early Years and Child Care Sector.” Childcare organizations that have advocated for the grid include the AECEO and the Ontario Coalition for Better Child Care (OCCBC). The wage grid would ensure that qualified early childhood educators (ECEs) would earn a starting wage of $30/hour and that other childcare staff would make at least $25/hour. Workers would also be provided with ten paid sick days, adequate planning time, and paid time for professional learning.

Ontario New Democratic Party leader, Andrea Horwath, has committed to introducing a $25/hour starting wage for registered ECEs, and other provinces and territories are already improving the wages and working conditions of childcare workers. Manitoba has recently announced a wage floor of $25/hour for workers, and the Yukon brought in a wage supplement in April 2021 that raised ECE wages to over $30/hour.

The Need for a Public System

Demands for the exclusion of for-profit operators from a national childcare plan and the establishment of a wage grid for childcare workers are eminently reasonable. In fact, such demands barely attain the benchmarks needed to ensure a system that actually benefits workers, parents, and kids.

Short of a socialist system, childcare ought to be treated like a public good. This aim can be best achieved by integrating childcare with the public education system. This integration would produce certain immediate advantages for the sector including: 1) the elimination of childcare fees since publicly provided childcare, which is synonymous with early childhood education, would be treated as a right 2) the assurance of universal coverage — children’s participation in the program, as with participation in public education, would be assumed, and 3) higher childcare standards, which are most easily achieved within a centrally administered public system.

Such a system would also be good for childcare workers. Like public education teachers, childcare workers would be unionized. This union would bargain on behalf of all childcare workers within the province — substantially improving the bargaining power of the childcare sector. Currently, most childcare workers are not unionized, and those that are tend to work in small, individual nonprofits. In these cases, workers are forced to directly bargain with a parent-run board of directors who are often unwilling to increase workers’ wages because it will increase their childcare fees.

When Ford announced Ontario’s deal, Carolyn Ferns, policy coordinator at the Ontario Coalition for Better Child Care, noted that, “Today is a huge step forward, but we must learn from the mistakes of our past and correct course now — we cannot expand on the practices that have deeply broken Ontario’s child care system.” Expanding on the faulty foundation of childcare as it currently exists will yield unsatisfactory results. Only a generous public system is capable of creating the high-quality universal childcare programming needed to provide equitable access for all families.