Hanes: Family-friendly federal budget adopts Quebec daycare model

After nearly 25 years serving generations of children and families, there are also many social, feminist and economic arguments in favour of the Quebec daycare model.

Canada's Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland delivers the budget in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, April 19, 2021.

My kids have aged out of daycare now, but I will be forever grateful for Quebec’s universal, publicly funded daycare system.

Not only did it save our family a lot of money once my eldest finally secured a coveted spot in a Centre de la petite enfance at age 3, it provided a safe, secure, friendly, educational, enriching and stimulating environment that my kids flourished in, so I could pursue my career with a lot less mommy guilt.

This is my personal take as the federal government unveiled a $10-a-day national childcare strategy for the rest of Canada Monday. It is part of the first budget since COVID-19 struck — and the first delivered by a female Finance Minister, Chrystia Freeland. But after nearly 25 years serving generations of children and families, there are also many social, feminist and economic arguments in favour of the Quebec model on which this new policy is based.

Parents in the rest of Canada often fork over the equivalent of a second mortgage every month for childcare. Under the program announced in the budget, the goal is to bring the cost down to about $10 a day by 2026. In Quebec, the going rate is currently $8.50, having returned to a universal fee in 2019 under the government of Premier François Legault, after nearly five years of confusing income-contingent contributions introduced by the Quebec Liberals in 2014.

The federal government is committing up to $8.3 billion a year for affordable childcare in the budget. Quebec spends about $2.5 billion annually on 235,000 subsidized daycare spots, mainly in non-profit CPEs.

Critics will surely grumble about the cost of the new federal program, on top of the stimulus spending, huge deficit and staggering debt Canada has undertaken to reboot the economy after the pandemic. But studies have shown Quebec’s investment in quality childcare more than pays for itself.

One analysis almost a decade ago showed the program prompted 70,000 mothers to return to work, who might not have done so otherwise, increasing Quebec’s GDP by 1.7 per cent, or $5 billion.

As a result of the subsidized daycare, Quebec’s female labour participation rate outpaces the rest of Canada by over five points and is the highest in the country. (Or at least it was before the pandemic.)

A study by the International Monetary Fund (also before COVID-19) found that the lack of affordable, high-quality daycare was a major reason for the gender gap between men and women taking part in the workforce in the rest of Canada, especially among those with the highest educational attainment. And after examining various solutions and options, it identified a Quebec-style daycare system as a key way to increase employment among women — and an important driver of the country’s future economic growth and prosperity.

This was the case before the pandemic, but the situation has gotten worse since. Women have been hit harder by COVID-19 in what some have labelled a “she-demic.” Their mental health has taken a hit while added domestic and family duties have been piled on, forcing many to leave their jobs.

“The closing of our schools and daycares drove women’s participation in the labour force down to its lowest level in more than two decades,” said Freeland on Monday. “Early learning and child care has long been a feminist issue; COVID has shown us that it is an urgent economic issue, too.”

Of course, Quebec’s daycare system is not perfect. It has been plagued with problems of accessibility from the start and expanding the number of places in the public network has stymied successive governments for reasons both political and practical.

There is a parallel private and home-based system to pick up the slack. Private, for-profit centres can still cost parents big bucks, although tax breaks are offered, paid out on a monthly basis, to bridge the difference and ensure fairness. But that doesn’t address the superior quality found in most CPEs.

Quebec’s public system also isn’t always flexible enough to meet the needs of parents who don’t work a traditional 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., five-days-per-week schedule, favouring middle-class, white-collar professionals to the detriment of disadvantaged families living at the margins. Still, it is a model worth emulating on a much larger scale — as long as it is done with the aim of building a truly accessible, high-quality public daycare system, rather than just defraying costs. The devil will be in the details, of course.

Economic kickstarts usually focus on bricks-and-mortar construction, heavily male-dominated fields. Perhaps we’re finally seeing a stimulus package that will benefit generations of children and families to come, while providing a welcome stepping stone toward greater equality for women.

  1. Quebec has the highest labour market participation rate for young women in the world, and that’s the direct result of high-quality child care that is affordable and readily available, Allison Hanes writes.

    Allison Hanes: Pandemic has reminded Quebecers to cherish our daycare system

  2. Since Quebec adopted low-cost daycare, the rate of working women in Quebec has grown faster and is now higher than in the rest of Canada.

    Allison Hanes: Quebec daycare a model for Canada, but province shouldn't rest on its laurels

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